The Soul Work of Recovery

by Bill Wigmore

There’s an old saying that “the eyes are the window to the soul.” And by the time most of us get to recovery, our eyes are bloodshot and our souls are barely hanging on through life support.

When I was sitting in treatment, there was a god-awful exercise that every member of my group was asked to do. Sooner or later, our counselor wanted each of us to take the dreaded “trip to the mirror.”

We had to go face the mirror that hung on his office wall. And looking straight into our own eyes, we had to tell the group what it was that we saw.

Someone in the group, who had a little more time in treatment, always went up there with us — steadying and supporting us, with hands on our shoulders — but he was also charged with watching our eyes in the mirror to make sure we didn’t flinch or look away.

I think I made it for all of about — — a second and a half! By then, looking into my soul got too painful and my eyes went shooting straight down to my shoes. At a second and a half, I actually held the longevity record for a while in my group! We were some sick puppies!

But then occasionally, we’d get a real narcissist who’d check in — some drunk or druggie totally in love with himself — and he’d look in the mirror and instead of looking away — he’d start fixing his hair or checking out his pearly whites … all three of them! We’d sit back and smile — we knew the counselor would soon start in on him and the heat would be off of us shame-based ones for a while.

Now looking back, that mirror exercise may have constituted cruel and unusual punishment; and today, maybe they’re only still using it down at Guantanamo, but it got the point across. It helped me understand the real depth of my illness. How I looked at me was through eyes drowning in shame.

And the way that counselor explained our illness back then, he said, “at its depth, addiction is a kind of love disorder.” He said we addicts, including him, were so filled with shame that we’d damaged our ability to give or to receive love. I believed him when he told me that — I knew it was true, at least in my case.

The Big Book says that our drinking (and drug use) was only the symptom of a much deeper illness. It says our real problem is self — our real problem is the self we see staring back at us from that mirror. A self that’s cut off from others, cut off from God, and cut off even from our own souls. That pain is too much for us and so we go out seeking relief.

I knew that day that just “not drinking” wasn’t going to cut it for me. Like every real alcoholic and addict, I needed recovery from “the sickness that resides deep in our souls.”

Now over the years, as my self-centeredness has lessened at least a bit, I’ve discovered that the eyes are windows into other people’s souls as well as our own. And perhaps you’ve also had the experience of glancing into somebody’s eyes and catching sight of their soul.

Maybe it’s glancing into the eyes of somebody you love and care about. Somebody whose face you’ve been looking at for 20, or 30, or 40 years — and then in one moment of suspended time you look at them — your eyes meet — and somehow it’s like you’re seeing them for the very first time. It’s as if time and place are suspended and you’re able to see right through to their souls.

Sometimes that happens to me with my wife, or with one of our kids, or sometimes with a friend; and very often, it happens with a newborn baby. Our eyes meet — our souls connect — and when they do, then for just a few seconds, all my ego barriers are lowered and gone. Suddenly there’s a one-ness, a joining that’s almost more than I can stand.

Maybe, just like with the mirror, it only lasts a second and a half before I have to look away — but this time it’s not like before. This time it’s because the love that moment brings is so intense that it’s almost too much to bear.

Real recovery is more than “not drinking and drugging.” Real recovery is doing soul work. It’s letting God’s love enter our hearts, and heal our shame, and take away our fears at deeper, and deeper, and deeper levels, one day at a time.

Real recovery is awakening our souls to who we really are: sons and daughters of a loving, and forgiving, and ever-present God. That soul work takes a lifetime.

The world doesn’t really change very much — but the eyes through which we see it can and do. Maybe that old bar phrase “Here’s looking at you!” will take on a whole new meaning.

Reprinted by kind permission of the author. More of his writings can be found at

About the Authors

Renascent Alumni
Members of Renascent's alumni community carry the message by sharing their experiences and perspectives on addiction and recovery. To contribute your alumni perspective, please email