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Exploring a Higher Power: Spiritual Workshops in Addiction Recovery

By Hugh C. McBride

At Sunrise Recovery Ranch, the path to lifelong sobriety begins with four simple, yet essential steps:

  1. Acknowledging the effects one's disease has had on oneself and one's loved ones.
  2. Learning to communicate effectively and manage one's emotions.
  3. Understanding the principles of relapse prevention.
  4. Developing a spiritual connection with one's higher power.

Though many drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs attempt to address issues similar to these four, Sunrise has had remarkable success by giving extensive attention to each core concept. "We work hard to build the strongest foundation [for recovery] that we can," said Keith Miller, the program's executive director.

When it comes to the "higher power" phase of the Sunrise experience, Miller said, that foundation-building process is significantly enhanced by the presence of spiritual advisor Timothy Bernardy. "Timothy is one of those incredible people that you're occasionally fortunate enough to meet," Miller said. "He brings the concept of God into focus for our clients, and he is a tremendous asset to our program."

'AN AWARENESS & AN AWAKENING'

Bernardy's contributions to the Sunrise effort take two primary forms: He regularly lectures on spirituality during the week that is devoted to that topic, and he leads special one-on-one workshops designed to guide men from step four to step eight of the 12 Step recovery model. Though he is a widely respected lecturer, Miller said, it is the special workshops and the connection Bernardy makes with the men who are recovering at Sunrise that are particularly inspiring.

"For many people, Timothy Bernardy's special workshops are the highlight of their experience at Sunrise," Miller said. "In fact, we've even had alumni who have returned to the ranch specifically to participate in the workshops."

Bernardy downplayed his own significance in the process ("The success [of the workshops] has nothing do to with me," he said. "It's all between the participants and God."), but he acknowledged that the workshops he leads are both life-altering and life-affirming. "There's an awareness and an awakening that occurs when a person turns his life over to God," Bernardy said. "You can see it in their eyes."

MOVING TOWARD GOD

The men who volunteer to participate in Sunrise's special step workshop do so with the intention of accomplishing the following:

  • Step 4: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • Step 5: Admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • Step 6: Be entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • Step 7: Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.
  • Step 8: Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

The workshop experience is an emotional one, Bernardy said, and is centered on the willingness of the recovering individual to acknowledge his shortcomings and admit to his powerlessness over his disease. "It's about committing to change and connecting with God," he said. "That's where the action is, where the progress is made."

And though a belief in and reliance upon a higher power is essential to one's progress through the 12 Steps, Bernardy is adamant that the process is independent of any particular religious belief. "I never discuss what religion I belong to, and I never tell anyone what to believe," Bernardy said. "I don't pin it down to any one faith. It's just God."

SHARING THE STRUGGLE

For Bernardy, bringing Sunrise clients closer to God involves sharing his own climb out of alcoholism. "I tell them all about my failures," he said, "and I also talk about my goals and accomplishments."

Though he is working on his 22nd year of sobriety, Bernardy said that the memories of his struggles to give up alcohol remain strong, which helps him connect with men who are in the earliest stages of their own recovery. "I had twenty-three 30-day chips," he recalled, "but I couldn't quit drinking until I turned myself over to God."

When he sits down in his office with a workshop participant (giving up his desk chair to his visitor "because I want him to know that he's more important that I am," he said) Bernardy embarks upon a journey that lasts for several hours and results in a new perspective and a brighter future for the person with whom he is working.

"We work on their moral inventory, we talk about the power of God, and I listen to them express their willingness to change," Bernardy said. "It's a very powerful experience. And everyone I've ever worked with - even men who entered the room as atheists and agnostics - we end up on our knees in prayer together."

CHANGED FOR LIFE

Following the 12 Step model, Bernardy said, "changes the way we think, and changes the way we act." By helping men to establish a strong foundation upon which to base these changes, he said, Sunrise Recovery Ranch provides an essential service - and allows him to do "what God wants me to be doing.""This is a great place because of the support of all the counselors and the leadership of Keith [Miller]," he said. "I love coming to work here."

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