Pagans in Recovery (sometimes abbreviated as PIR) is the phrase which is frequently used to describe the collective efforts of Neopagans to achieve abstinence or the remission of compulsive/addictive behaviors through twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Al-Anon/Alateen, etc. These efforts generally focus on modifying or adapting the twelve steps to accommodate the Pagan world-view as well as creating Pagan-friendly twelve step meetings either as part of a pre-existing twelve-step program, or as independent entities.

Why separate from regular twelve-step meetings?

Many Pagans are uncomfortable with traditional twelve-step meetings because of the use of Christian prayers, the difficulty in finding supportive sponsors, the assumption that a person’s Higher Power is male, etc. Some Pagans find the 12 steps themselves too reminiscent of Christian theology to be applicable to their belief systems. Pagans have been “ousted from A.A. meetings or shunned” when members of that A.A. group discovered that they were Pagans. However this type of conduct would not be approved by A.A. itself as any person who “has a desire to stop drinking” may declare themselves a member of A.A.

In 1992, Dr Charlotte Kasl, an addiction counselor and author, and past member of Alcoholics Anonymous published a book titled Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps, a work which has greatly influenced the Pagan Recovery Movement. In her book, Dr. Kasl notes that Bill W., Dr. Bob and the other men who helped them put together the A.A. program and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous all came from similar backgrounds, they were all privileged, white males who wrote the bulk of these influential works in the middle of the 20th century. Kasl argues, the focus of the traditional recovery movement is rooted in a white, middle class, heterosexual mindset, steeped in the teachings of Abrahamic religions and greatly influenced by the conservative U.S. culture of the 1950’s. She claims that the well meaning but patriarchal attitudes inherent within the program, coupled with Judeo/Christian teachings which focus strongly (some say exclusively) on guilt and shame are deeply problematic for many who attempt to find a place at 12 Step meetings. She also points out that while the program is held to be perfect, Kasl’s own viewpoint is that the A.A. program is simply a guideline.

Kasl further states, the view of alcoholics and others as those with “egos run rampant” can be foreign to the experience of many women, gays, and lesbians, survivors of sexual and/or physical abuse, people of color, those from non-western cultures, and those who practice alternative forms of spirituality. Such groups, she notes, often have self-esteem issues brought on by a culture that sees them as “less than” and she argues that that their core issues are often centered around feeling power-less, not power-ful. She believes, the challenge comes in people finding their voices, telling their truth, and speaking up for their rights. They need to own and use their strength, not deny it, and she offers her own 16 Steps as an alternative to the problems and prejudices which she believes are inherent in the original 12 Steps. She states A search of approved addiction literature of A.A. and Al-Anon provided me with no definition of a healthy, mature “recovered” person. One is always an addict, dependent on groups, and always at the brink of relapse if he or she doesn’t follow certain directives and trust external authority. It is heresy to say I am recovered – I don’t need a group. Personal power, competence, self-reliance, intellect, and happiness are also suspect. Most of all there is no room for questioning – the bedrock of expanding one’s mind and developing a set of internalized values that provide an inner sanctuary of personal strength.

Her work has influenced the creation of other alternative programs, among them Spiral Steps.
Anodea Judith (a Pagan counselor) and Dj (the founder of Spiral Steps), among others, have argued for a recovery format that is more in tune with earthwise practice and ethics. Starkhawk and other Pagan writers have noted that the challenge for our culture as a whole is not seeking “power over” but finding ways of using “power with”, while Dr. Kasl and others have begun offering programs and groups that incorporate a holistic view of healing that involves mind, body and spirit. As a result, many alternative groups now focus on empowerment, balance, and connection to the sacred as opposed to the 12 Step requirement in Step 3 “to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God”. Alternative groups also support their members who may choose to use non-traditional healing techniques, such as alternative medicine, meditation and visualization techniques, inner child work, ritual, yoga, and other forms of healing which they feel can compliment treatments offered by western medicine.

The focus in alternative groups tends to be on tolerance, balance, building better boundaries, healing old wounds, making amends, taking our power back and right action. As a result, these groups tend to be more in tune with Pagan, New Age, Native American, humanistic, feminist, and Buddhist teachings, as well as with the more progressive versions of the mainstream faiths.

Another issue among Pagans in recovery is the one-sided image of addicts, alcoholics, codependents, and survivors of dysfunctional families portrayed in official 12 Step literature and in the many books published on recovery and dysfunctional family systems since the 1980’s. For example, Kasl and others in the field of addiction have long noted that the classic “Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics” and the list known as “The Problem” in ACA(which are read at every ACA meeting) focus strongly on “character defects” and do not adequately support the creation or celebration of character strengths, strengths which are often the result of surviving these very systems. In a 2005 article written for The Witches’ Voice titled Making a Sea Change, Dj writes that “Much of what we learned as survivors has made us stronger, better, deeper and often as not, uniquely gifted. This is something to be valued, even if it did come at a very high price.” (Quoted with full knowledge of and with permission from the author. SV) This methodology appears similar to the 12 Step practice of sharing “experience, strength and hope”; A.A. literature suggests that our experiences with alcohol, both good and bad, are the greatest tool to help others achieve sobriety.
It should also be noted that many twelve-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, have special interest groups, typically meetings specifically geared towards young people, men, women, gays and lesbians, etc. Alcoholics Anonymous has also started meetings specifically for Native Americans which accommodate the Native American view of spirituality. However, it is not uncommon for Pagans who are recovering alcoholics to start A.A. meetings specifically for Pagans though these meetings may not be included in local meeting directories.