The Spiritual Aspects to Recovery

September 2017

Mackenzie Phillips

Mackenzie Phillips

Many know Mackenzie Phillips for her 1970s role as Julie, the rebellious teen on the CBS sitcom One Day at a Time, and as Carol in the 1973 film American Graffiti. These days, Phillips is committed to her work as a substance use disorder counselor at Breathe Life Healing Center in West Hollywood, California, near her home in Sherman Oaks. After decades of struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, Phillips is in recovery. She shares what she’s learned in her book, Hopeful Healing: Essays on Managing Recovery and Surviving Addiction.

I’ve always been a seeker. When I was little, I went to my mom and said, “Mommy, I want to be Jewish.” She didn’t question me. She didn’t dismiss me. She didn’t argue with me. Instead, she took me to Temple.

There was a time in my life when I chanted “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” a vow to manifest our Buddha nature; a pledge to never allow your suffering to win.

Another time I went to a church and got “saved” in the water.

Now at nearly 58, my beliefs are more in line with the Dalai Lama, who said, “My religion is kindness.” My personal faith is love and I believe God is love—and kindness and generosity.

I believe in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I love author don Miguel Ruiz and his book, The Four Agreements. I love the Toltec tradition and wisdom he teaches.

I’m open to a lot of faith traditions. I think it’s all beautiful. And I don’t think God cares how you set your table.

I also believe in gratitude, in giving thanks—to God, the Universe. Every day I express thanks for my life and the opportunities I’ve been given, especially the chance to help others who have chosen the path to recovery.

When I was young, my desire wasn’t to become an actress or a musician like my father. What I really wanted to do was to be a psychologist. I was always so fascinated by what makes us tick—why we do what we do, why we behave the way we behave. But I set that dream aside for acting. And, of course, I became an addict too.

Over the years when I had a sense that there was something else I should be doing, I would dismiss it. I’d think, Yeah, but I’m an actor. Everyone expects me to do that and if I don’t do that, I don’t have value.

It wasn’t until I was 50 and sober that I looked at that belief. Did I really think that following my heart and my passion meant I had less value? That’s when I decided to go back to school so that I could help others overcome and survive addiction. I just had a sense that this was the path to follow. I’m so grateful I listened to my inner wisdom and took that leap of faith.

Through my work at Breathe Life and my book, Hopeful Healing, I want to help people remember who they are—to find their true voice and to use it to ask for what they need; to ask for help. I want to help people think about themselves in a different way than “addict.”

I really believed the narrative that I created that said I was just an addict. I was making up stories in my head about who I was and my value. I think writing my memoir, High on Arrival, really helped me to live powerfully and with intention as opposed to simply crashing through the day or going through the motions or hoping for the best.

I think society considers addiction a moral failing; that you must be weak or a criminal or there must be something wrong with you. I think a lot of people see an alcoholic as someone in a trench coat with a paper bag and a pint. There are a lot of misconceptions about addicts and about recovery. People think that to be in recovery means you’re never going to have fun again, that all 12-step programs are filled with a bunch of Holy Rollers.

That’s just not true.

In my work, I’m like the flippers on a pinball machine, trying to keep the ball in play to motivate and guide my clients. I want them to know that I understand—that I’ve been there and I get it. My clients tell me they know I’ve been through hell and back; that I can relate to what they’re going through and have experienced.

It’s heartbreaking work because the rate of recidivism is so high in addiction. But I love to see the light go on in somebody’s eyes. I love seeing a person wake up. I love seeing them remember who they are—that they’re not the things that they’ve done or the things that their family has done. They’re not what their inner critic says they are. That’s really a powerful thing to be present for with another person.

I meditate every morning and I do meditations with clients at Breathe Life. People think you have to sit and chant, but anything can be a meditation as long as you’re mindfully doing it. One of the best tools we have to self-regulate is to monitor our breathing and use the breath to calm our bodies. It’s a very powerful tool for recovery. As you go through recovery, you start becoming present in the moment and aware of your surroundings and aware of where you are in the moment.

I’m living my dream. I’m awake to my life. I’m not struggling to stay sober. I’m no longer missing all of the fun things, all of the lovely things that I missed when I was using.

Now that I’m sober, I want to be present for it all. Whatever is going on around me, I’m open to it—whatever it may be.