The Role of Religion and Spirituality in the Recovery Process: A Conversation with Carl Coccaro

The Miracle Activation Center team recently announced the debut of a new SMART Recovery virtual series that takes place every Wednesday from 10:00 AM EST to 11:30 AM EST. The meetings, hosted by Larendee Roos and Carl Coccaro, will cater to people going through the recovery process, as well as those currently supporting someone going through this journey. Spirituality, religion, and self discovery are big parts of the recovery process, and our meetings always seek to cater to each individual’s specific needs and belief systems. How can we do this successfully? 

Larendee Roos, the founder of Miracle Activation Center, recently sat down with Carl Coccaro, Physiotherapist, MS, LPC, LCDC, NCC, to discuss the role of spirituality in the recovery process and the differences between religion and spirituality. Below is a transcript of their conversation. We hope it brings awareness and helps our readers keep an open mind and an open heart as they embark on this journey with us. 

Larendee: Carl, we’re going to dive right in. I first want to talk to you about your upbringing and your background, relative to your religion and spirituality. So, can you just tell me a little bit about your history and your journey up to this point?

Carl: Having the structure of religion early on in my life kind of helped keep this proverbial ‘devil on my shoulder’ in place, and in return kept me on the straight and narrow – just enough to avoid disaster. Other things, of course, play into this, like having a wonderful family. I was very blessed to have a very loving mother and father, and a very present mom. I come from a Roman-Catholic background, and I grew up in Long Island, so religion was a very big part of our lives. I remember my grandfather even had a chapel in his house, which I thought was weird but was also fascinated by. I loved it but it also kind of freaked me out. You would walk in and there were all these statues everywhere, it was really something. 

Larendee: Wow, that sounds amazing. I’m curious, were there pews? 

Carl: Yeah, there were two pews that he took from a church. He was also an usher at a church, so there were rosaries hanging everywhere. I remember getting numerous rosaries as a kid, and I remember going on walks and being quizzed on religious terms and facts, like ‘what does the INRI stand for?’ So religion was always very front and center. However, I do want to say that my parents were very loving and supportive, and they didn’t push religion on me, it was just there

Larendee: From what I can understand, religion was just a part of their lives and a part of who they were. Was your mother very devout, did she go to church every day, or was it a bit more laid-back than that? 

Carl: No, it wasn’t like that, we would just go on Sundays, and that was it. Her father, Pop Joe, was really rough around the edges. He was this merchant marine with tattoos, but he would be in church multiple times a week. It was a very big part of his life. For me, it wasn’t like that. I was a busy kid, I attended organized sports, I played soccer all my life, which I also think helped keep me with the right crowd in a way. I also had a great friend group in my community, and some of them also had religious families, so it was a shared experience, something natural. Ultimately, we were taught early on about the importance of religion and family in our lives, and how in the worst situations, God would be there to protect. 

Larendee: Amazing. So, how did that upbringing shape your relationship with religion and spirituality? Have you, over time, identified God as your higher power, or did you go in a different direction?

Carl: God has always been my higher power. I think I shared with you recently that, as a practicing psychotherapist, I now participate in numerous interventions, and through that, I’ve become a huge believer and lover of Buddhism and Buddhist practices. It’s a powerful and incredible juxtaposition, but you know, I’m the kind of person who brings in everything. I just like to keep an open mind regarding people’s personal beliefs. If I can use some of the Buddhist principles and strategies to help others, I do, and it’s been a helpful approach to go along with some of the Catholicism principles I use.

Larendee: So, talking more about Catholicism, I’m curious to know how it has shaped your life today. How do you bring forth that solid Catholic foundation, and how does it impact the way you live your life?

Carl: You know, I’m an adult now, with a wonderful wife and two daughters. At the same time, I still play sports, I’m still a musician, and I’m still a creative person. I feel like I haven’t really changed much at all, and I still have the exact same belief system I had growing up. Of course, my life is even busier now, but I still go to church when I can, and I pray very often. I also try to instill these values and beliefs that have helped me in my life, in my children, but not to the point where it’s overbearing. I think it’s important to provide a religious structure for children early on, so that they have something to believe in and guide them. However, if they grow older and realize it’s not really helping them, I don’t have a problem with that. I just want to know that I at least tried to provide that structure for them, because it has helped me so much in my own life. Working in the field of psychotherapy, it’s all too often that I work with people who didn’t have that structure in their childhood, and most of them struggle with spirituality as adults. It’s especially true in the recovery world. So, I feel like it’s my duty to ensure that my kids have access to that in their lives.

Larendee: How wonderful. I’m curious if you’ve ever had a crisis of faith or a time when you thought ‘I’m not sure this is working.’ Was there ever a time in your life when you took a step back from your religious practice? 

Carl: I wouldn’t say I ever experienced a crisis per se, but there were moments where I questioned it. I wondered, as one wonders, why does God let bad things happen to good people? Why does He allow bad things to happen in the world, and for people to suffer trauma, or abuse? That can get confusing and frustrating at times, but it’s important to understand and accept that two things can be true at once. If your faith and your sense of self are strong enough, and you’ve done enough work on the spiritual side, then you will realize that the bad things you’ve gone through are not punishments. They were just challenges written for you, rites of passage that you needed to experience to become stronger or a more well-rounded individual. Learning and accepting that two things can be true at once is a very important skill in spirituality, I think. 

Larendee: Let’s talk a bit about recovery. Why have you chosen to make that such a big part of your life’s work?

Carl: I think I’ve always just naturally gravitated towards it. Even when I was a young kid, I was that person that people were comfortable going to, that they could trust and confide in. I’ve always been approachable, I guess, but never really realized it until I started working with kids and young adults. I was an educator for many years, and I observed that in the classroom, and in all of my therapy work. Some family stuff also played a part in my focus on recovery, including my parents’ sudden divorce after 38 years of marriage. My family had to deal with a lot of trauma at that moment. My parents ultimately remarried years later, but that’s another story for a different interview. So I’ve seen some struggle in my family, but mostly I’ve seen it in my work with young adults. Kids and teens need an outlet to talk to, and a lot of times they can’t talk to their parents openly. I was that person for them, that they could trust and open up to, and that made me realize this is what I wanted to do. 

Larendee: There are statistics and opinions out there that Gen-Zers, Millennials, and even older generations are leaving religion in droves. Membership acquisition in every form of Christianity is very low compared to 10 years ago. In this context, do you think there is a place for religion in our world today?

Carl: The short answer is ‘always.’ I do see what you’re saying, I think people have become so jaded by the concept of God, and they tend to search for loopholes, discrepancies or just things that seem far-fetched in today’s world. I believe that once you start questioning any religion or belief system too much, you will find reasons to not believe, which is why I always say that you should pick what is helpful to you, and that’s it. Your higher power can be anything; as long as it’s helpful in your life, who are we to question it? I had a client once who came into my office and handed me the Couran, saying that unless I embrace and follow the principles and be 100% devoted, I’m not a true Christian. I thought it was an interesting approach, and one that many people believe, but I have my own way of seeing things. I am content in my own spirituality and my relationship with God, and that’s ultimately what matters to me. 

Larendee: I do see that it’s not that people are turning away from their Christian principles, they’re just not attending church as regularly anymore. A lot of people also say that they’re not religious, but they’re spiritual. What would you say to that?

Carl: I don’t feel you need to attend church every week to be a good Christian or a good practitioner. Your relationship with God is your own, the way you pray and practice your religion are also your own. It’s important to follow your own path and do what makes sense to you. Being a psychotherapist has really helped me understand the differences between religion and spirituality, and it has really opened up my world. There is this book, One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps by Kevin Griffin, that talks about inner power versus higher power. It explains how, for some people, meditation is a form of prayer, and that there are many ways to get in touch with one’s spirituality, besides going to church. Being in nature, traveling, knowing yourself, these are all ways that you can connect to a higher power, so we shouldn’t count them out. I like to blend and mix these principles and ideas together, and build a wider methodology that can help people with different beliefs. 

Larendee: Is there anything else you would like to share about your journey that could be helpful to our readers?

Carl: Being in this field for a long time, I’ve seen so many cases of people who were ultimately saved by their closeness to God or a higher power. As someone working in this field, you can’t afford to ignore that. You need to consider everyone’s individual needs and beliefs, and build from there. You have to be open minded and understand that you have to use whatever works for them, not necessarily what has worked for you. I can have a 360-degree view and see why some people might not believe in the same thing I do or practice religion, but the person on the other end of the conversation has to do the same. That’s where the disconnect lies for a lot of people, in the inability to see where the other person is coming from, and accepting them. 

Larendee: Thank you so much, Carl! It’s been a pleasure, and I can’t wait to keep diving into these important ideas and issues in our next SMART recovery sessions. 

Learn more about our SMART Recovery program and how to join on the Miracle Activation Center blog

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