Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Little Known Phenomenon

The Dark Night of Recovery

Gerald May brings to light a phenomenon unknown to many in recovery. The Dark Night of the Soul. It is a stage through which many pass, if they are truly on a path of spiritual unfoldment. It is a necessary, yet misunderstood stage of the journey.

“No one understands the dark night of the soul better than people recovering from life-threatening addictions. Some AA members call themselves ‘grateful alcoholics’ because alcoholism finally brought them to their knees. It was only because of alcoholism that they discovered the true depths and longings of their souls.

Such spiritual awakenings can sometimes lead to another kind of dark night, what I’ve called a ‘dark night of recovery.’ To understand it, we need to realize that twelve-step programs work best people have come to know without doubt that recovery is a life-or-death matter, that dependence upon the higher power is the only way to life. This is a special kind of beginning for a spiritual journey. There are no delicate mysterious inner longings here, only the simple, desperate need to stay alive. As long as this sense of absolute necessity continues, a person can work the steps with complete dedication to recovery. Whatever images of God the person may have earlier held, God is now the higher power, the source of the grace one needs to recover, the only hope for survival.

Many people continue in recovery this way for years-perhaps for their whole lives. Others, however, experience something different at a certain point along the way. After having worked the program while, a person may begin to notice that what began as a desperate need for God is changing into a loving desire for God. It is as if God were saying ‘Of course I want to be saving higher power. But I Am also so much more than that. I want to be your deepest love.” And somehow, something in the person’s heart has become free enough to say yes to this barely heard invitation. In the dark night’s characteristic obscurity, compulsion is again becoming freedom, necessity changing into choice.

Before, one needed God as the agent of recovery, the divine dispenser of grace. We serve God (or AA, if you will) like a laborer expecting his wages. Now this need is developing into a love for God as God’s Self. This is a beautiful happening, but it brings with it a new relinquishment that can feel deeply threatening. Along with the sweetness of emerging love comes a certain shakiness about recovery. Recovery is no longer the single most important thing in life. Something else has taken its place, and the fear of relapse grows.

*Note-we are looking at a form of idolatry, the worship of false gods. We worship all the things that help to point us to God-AA, the fellowship, meetings, the Big Book, the steps, our sponsors, service, even ourselves. Yet we forget to worship or to live in thankful contemplation of God. Getting free of this attachment can be very difficult. Many will never get free, because they fear the freedom.

Later, one may come to realize that recovery, as the most important thing in life, had become an idol. God was a means to an end-recovery. Then in darkness, after the heart said yes and love grew, the idol of recovery teetered and fell. The powers had shifted. Recovery is no longer the end, but a means in the service of love.

All the signs of the night are there in this transition. What had worked before no longer does, and one’s previous energetic dedication is waning. More disturbing still, the deep care, the desperate need for recovery seems undermined. And if given the unusual courage and insight to admit it, one would have to say the deepest desire is no longer for recovery, but for God alone.

I have walked with several people through this particularly blessed and troublesome night. All were terrified of relapse, and some temporarily did relapse. But all made it through to deeper freedom: freedom from their enslavement to addiction, but also freedom from their servitude to recovery. Now their gratitude is not only for the grace of recovery, but for the simple freedom to love God and their neighbors more completely.”

-Gerald May from “The Dark Night Of The Soul”


  1. Whenever this Dark Knight of the Soul topic comes up, I usually sit back and take a break... as I don't know what it is nor do I know if I have any experience in it.

    I don't feel like I've ever been a part of it... unless it happened somewhere between my drinking bouts or something.

    I have had a sense of freedom and peace for the last 7+ years, however, as to this need to worship A.A. or this need to worship the fingers that point to God.

    But I can't sit back and say, "Annoint me into the 'Been There Done That' club" either.

  2. One thing unique to me is that I had a hard time passing a barrier in sobriety that seemed to be somewhere between 2 and 4 years. Once I made it past that 4 year barrier, the struggle ceased.

    A spiritual experience is a great thing and all, but once it's used up, that's it. I can't live today on yesterday's experience. I don't know if that's got anything to do with this topic or not, but it's the only thing I can think of with regards to my experience of it.

  3. The Dark Night is not something that everyone gets to enjoy. I am not quite sure why some of us experience it and some of us don't, except that some of us seem to be hard wired for it.

  4. I have seen this happen but have no personal experience with it. Nor do I wish to.

    I have seen people come to use God as a means to an end - sobriety. Once the end is achieved, the means are left be the wayside. That spiritual awakening became a singular event.

    I've sought to transform my spiritual awakening into a spiritual existence, trying to never forget it was sobriety that led me to God and God has become the end. An existence with God and a love of God is what I cherish today.

    Sobriety, among a lot of other things I've learned in the past few years, is a small part of that God love.

  5. I don't think anyone wants to have a personal experience with the dark night. Trouble with that is that we don't get a choice. I think that if a person is serious about the spiritual path that sooner or later he will pass through a dark night type experience.

    Many A.A.'s aren't aware of the phenomenon, so they think that they are depressed or that they missed something in the steps and need to work more steps or do more service or sponsor more people or get another sponsor. Once a person is in the night, there is no way out of it, only through. I think probably the biggest lesson I learned from the experienced is to just "be" with what is.

  6. Well Jim, if the darkness starts to set on, you're gonna be the first person I turn to.

    I've gone through some periods of "funk" before, but nothing I got too concerned about. Now I'll have to be watchful for anything approaching the dark night experience.

    As I mentioned, I've seen this happen to a few guys, mostly at the 7-10 year point and they came through it eventually.

    I've also seen guys go through a similar but somewhat different experience. The entered a period of darkness and depression, but from it went back out again.

    This I attribute to confusing the means and the end. They had used God to find sobriety, but once the sobriety was achieved, it took precedence over God. This is what I hope to avoid.

  7. I'm not gonna pretend to invite or encourage a "Dark Knight" of anything, much less of my soul.

    I just got past a Dark Knight of Economic Insecurity and would sacrifice almost anything including my soul or perhaps your soul to keep it that way.

    I have a Built-in Fuck-it Button if things get too bad and I can just drink booze if I don't get my way for long enough. My Ace-in-the-hole... so to speak.

    I've said this many times before and I'll say it again... I'd rather have a Bottle-in-front-of me than a Frontal Labotomy.

    I don't suffer fools and I won't suffer you. Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.

    I would rather drink fucking booze than kill myself or you. My past experience abundantly confirms this.

    If I think God really wants or needs me to do something... I'm more likely to pay attention to do this than I have been in the past.

    But unlike Mark Houston, I'm not going to fucking Texas. If God tells me to leave Colorado for Texas, I ain't going... no matter fucking what. I'll go as far as listening to SRV and ZZ Top... but that's about it.

  8. Well Mc, then go half way lets say Oklahoma. Yeh, okie ba dokie. I'm here and there aint no Black Nights.
    This is a point in everybody recovery where they definitely have to shit or get off the bowl. You have gone as far as your going to go "being afraid to stay sober", to stay sober. If ya know what I mean.
    Going to meetings, sponsoring, speaking, going to a the assembly meeting quarterly and being a good all around AA'er will not keep you happy and sober for ever believe it or not. We have to find more purpose then just this. Being devoted to AA and feeling obliged to make pennants is generous and honorable at first but it wears thin quick (actually quicker then we realize).
    We were meant to live are lives happy, joyous and FREEEEEEEEEEEE. God makes this possible. My god did not tie the proverbial anchor around my ass to the AA chair of sobriety. I can be sober and stay sober with or without AA, yes that is what I said and there is nothing wrong with me living my life this way. I have been doing this consciously for the last 15 years. I have been sober and clean for almost 25 years of my life, I am 52 years old. So almost half of my life.
    I am not in fear or controlled by the fear of getting drunk or high nor do I believe I should be. The god of my understanding has brought me to a place I have always wanted, deep down inside of me, a place of freedom a place of peace.
    I really believe more people who were in AA for many years who based their sobriety on fear failed to achieve a happy rewarding life.
    These are the people who became slaves to their fears. This purgatory can't drink and can't be happy. How long can this go on.
    What does it say in the Twelve Step, practice these principles in all our affairs.
    We are practicing!!! Why??? Because if I knew how to get in front of life's unexpected travails then I would be god. I don't and I can't.
    and in all of this I have just said I also will not be a slave to the vulnerabilities I have had or will have on my journey.

  9. People that experience a dark night are the ones who do "practice these principles in all their affairs." They do the deal. Like I said, only a few ever really experience it. But is not something that one chooses into and it is not something that one chooses out of. What it really is is a stripping away of attachment.

    When I went into the dark night, I wasn't controlled by fear of getting drunk. My life was going great. Solid meditation practice, working with others, liked my job, my place to live, etc. So it isn't circumstantial or situational either.

    Luckily for me, I had a couple of good mentors who were wise and who did not encourage me nor discourage me.

  10. Must one be Hobbitt or Elf-like?

  11. Ha Ha. Don't think so, since I myself am neither hobbit or elf-like. Some people think I'm just an asshole.

  12. Some people also think I'm too serious. Fuck them, they don't know me and have no idea who I am or what I'm about.

  13. I dunno....I never thought of you as too serious, Jim, but there is a certain hobbit-like demeanor about you. I think we need a foot check here.

  14. I'm not a Lord Of The Rings fan, so I'm not sure what a hobbit-like demeanor looks like.

  15. Hobbits demeanor is characterized by dedication to their beliefs, loyalty to their friends, love of life, and a keen sense of humor.

    Oh, and they're really short and have hairy feet....

  16. Big hairy feet that keep them solid on the ground. So you are also grounded.