Originally published on the fix.com
When most people hear “Church of Latter-day Saints,” progressive isn’t the first word that springs to mind, and there’s good reason for that. The church has lagged on any number of issues from racial and gender equality to LGBT rights. The religion provides enough fodder for satire among non-LDS folk to create a supremely successful, Tony Award winning play about the seemingly backwards nature of LDS. When it comes to addiction, however, the church’s Addiction Recovery Program (ARP) is—within the confines of LDS religious doctrine—actually quite revolutionary.
To understand the significance of the LDS church establishing an addiction recovery program, one must first understand the Word of Wisdom. A fundamental LDS text, The Word of Wisdom outlines strict rules for “physical and spiritual” health. It forbids members of the LDS church from partaking in alcohol, drugs, (excluding medication, taken as prescribed by a doctor) and caffeine. Any indulgence in these substances is considered a sin and all members of the Church are expected to strictly adhere to the doctrine.
Sarah,* a 35-year old mother of two, was raised in the LDS church. Her parents fastidiously adhered to The Word of Wisdom, and every other LDS doctrine. Sarah and her siblings were expected to follow suit. “We attended church every Sunday and followed all the rules. Neither of my parents has ever tasted alcohol or smoked, had coffee, etc. It was a very active LDS upbringing.”
Yet the Idaho town in which she was raised had large LDS and non-LDS communities. As a teenager, Sarah made friends with non-LDS members who weren’t restricted by the same rules. “I rebelled and left activity with the church and had friends who weren’t LDS and dabbled in drugs, drinking, smoking and other LDS sinful stuff. Things that were probably typical outside of LDS culture but were terrible in my parents’ eyes.” She got pregnant as a teenager and managed to stay clean and sober for the duration of her pregnancy and while she was breastfeeding. During that time, she reconnected with the church. Soon after, however, she found herself feeling as so many struggling with addiction (regardless of religious affiliation) do: as though she was living a double life. “I reverted back to drinking and drugs while remaining active in the church. I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance because I really believed in the church but I wasn’t living a ‘clean’ life.”
The Beginning of the LDS Recovery Program
In 1981, another LDS woman named Colleen felt like she was “the most miserable ‘active’ Latter-day Saint.” Consumed with caring for her children and husband, she felt isolated from the world and sought refuge in the one thing that she felt she could “do for herself”: eat. She tried dieting and appealing to God for help, but the scale kept climbing higher. When she had tried everything else she could think of, and the scales still tipped over 300 pounds, a fellow Latter-day Saint took her to an Overeaters Anonymous (OA) meeting. There, she was introduced to the 12 Steps.
Colleen began to recover from her food addiction through OA. Still very involved in the LDS Church, she “used the Book of Mormon to magnify the concepts in the Steps.” Wanting to help others in the LDS Church who might be struggling with addiction, Colleen published He Did Deliver Me From Bondage in 1991, a kind of fusion of 12 step and LDS gospel for LDS addicts and their families. By 1995, a group called LDS Social Services (Now LDS Family Services) called Colleen to ask if they could use her book in companionship with their newly formed substance abuse recovery pilot program. That program would eventually become the Addiction Recovery Program.
Nearly 10 years after Colleen received the call from LDS Social Services, Sarah was meeting with a Bishop about her struggle between LDS life and her abuse of drugs and alcohol. The Bishop introduced Sarah to the ARP just as it was becoming a firmly established facet of the church. Church elders and recovering addicts were working to put together a more comprehensive handbook for the program, drawing from but not entirely dependent on He Did Deliver Me From Bondage. The resulting text is currently used in ARP meetings and can be found via The Addiction Recovery Program’s website.
Even a cursory look through ARP materials will reveal one thing: ARP is a 12-step program with a whole lotta Jesus Christ and a significant helping of Church Authority. If a Jesus-centric program of recovery isn’t your thing, ARP likely isn’t the program for you. While adapted from the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which are explicitly without religious affiliation, ARP is unabashedly a product of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Where AA suggests members come to their own understanding of a Higher Power, LDS’s program minces no words about the path to recovery: Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Lord and Savior. Naturally, this emphasis creates a barrier between ARP and many addicts.
For addicts who are already in the church, however, or whose beliefs align with LDS, they’ll find a remarkably well-organized program with a plethora of resources about ARP and tools to support someone trying to achieve sobriety. There are videos, explanation of the 12 steps (as interpreted through an LDS lens), resources in multiple languages, and a searchable database of ARP meetings.
As someone involved in what I consider to be a “spiritual not religious” 12-step recovery program, I initially bristled at the notion of LDS’s “twelve-step recovery program.” When it comes to the “Higher Power” part of my recovery program, I lean heavily on the broad side of things: nature, the universe, everything over which I have no control. While I might sometimes envy those with a clear definition of God, I have always appreciated that the 12 steps left room for people like me. Further, I’ve spent more time than I care to admit trying to squash the misconception that religion is a necessary part of 12-step programs. So, I was less than thrilled to see a version of the 12 steps that included Jesus Christ in almost every line. It would be a matter of minutes, I was sure, before AA critics took the adapted steps out of context and used them as evidence that 12-step programs really are a sly, Christian recruitment tool.
It was only after talking to Sarah, and learning about the LDS faith, that I began to see how I was looking at the ARP as an LDS outsider, not what it could offer someone inside or close to the religion. Many of us exist in a world where our substance use was considered acceptable, until it became substance abuse or addiction. Though asking for help in any context is difficult, I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be if my entire community considered me a sinner for touching the substance in the first place. ARP offers addicts in the LDS community a safe and compassionate place to seek help. Sarah says, “It’s often the case that people who seek out the LDS ARP are trying to strengthen their affiliation with the church or having drifted from LDS because they are struggling with addiction.” The fact that ARP isn’t widely accessible (at least to those outside of the church) makes it no less valuable to those inside the faith.
To be sure, there are complicated issues to unpack about the ARP program, especially for those of us who are not LDS. Where traditional 12-step groups have an “attraction not promotion” philosophy, recruitment is a central tenant of the LDS faith. Missionary couples are often responsible for orchestrating ARP meetings, though the facilitators inside the groups are generally recovering addicts. This dynamic may make AA members who are used to adhering to the “attraction not promotion” creed uncomfortable. Yet in some ways it is precisely this focus on recruitment that allows the LDS Church to extend a hand to those whom would otherwise be considered sinners. “The church doesn’t condone drug or alcohol use at all,” Sarah says, “but they would miss a large opportunity to fellowship to a population in need if they ignored those with addictions seeking help.”
The socially conservative nature of LDS is reflected in the ARP in ways that non-LDS folk might find confusing. For example, close to 25% of ARP meetings focus solely on recovery from pornography addiction. Like the use of alcohol and drugs, any pornography is considered a sin by the church and, thus, what’s considered a pornography addiction by the LDS church might very well be considered normal by most outsiders. Still, the LDS program isn’t likely to attract outsiders with a pornography addiction.
The belief that an addiction is anything other than a moral failing (or the work of Satan) is still controversial inside LDS. Sarah explains, “Many members within the church are unfamiliar with the (ARP) program, and it has been a slow process to make it well known within typical LDS society probably because there is a stigma against those who use drugs/alcohol from the LDS paradigm.” This mentality, so prevalent in the LDS church, is what makes the establishment of the ARP—heavily religious as it may be—so unexpected.
“My parents no longer think I’m terrible,” Sarah says with a touch of humor, “but they think my recovery is more about God forgiving me than the hard work I did during the 12 steps.”
Honesty is an essential component of an addict’s recovery, regardless of how religious or secular the treatment program is. By offering LDS members who are struggling with addiction (members that have, by definition, defied church doctrines) a place where they can be honest about their struggles and be given a compassionate program of recovery, the LDS church is surprisingly ahead of the game. When so many are still struggling with addiction, any program that treats addicts with compassion and a plan for recovery should be celebrated, even if it’s not the program that you or I, presumably as LDS outsiders, would gravitate toward.
“[ARP] was a natural choice for me, because as I was getting my life back together, I wanted to include the values I had grown up with and that led to the program and it all fit together nicely for me. It worked. It really helped my life. And it was great to be a part of it and see how many other people were helped by it, too.”
*Name and identifying details have been changed.