Recovering My Faith – Cyndi Hartley

Good morning, everyone. I’m Cyndi Hartley. I’ve been a member of UUFD for a little over a year and I’m co-chair of the Social Action Committee. I’m also a member of the Religious Exploration Committee, commonly called the RE Committee. I never thought I’d be this involved with a church again but here I am. Yesterday I celebrated four years clean and sober of drugs and alcohol. My recovery journey caused a swerve in my faith journey and they are both inextricably linked now. Let’s see how I got here.

Let’s start with a bit of background. I started drinking the summer before I started high school. Pretty much every time I drank, I would drink until I puked and then passed out. I didn’t realize there was any other way to drink. Sometimes a medical professional or a survey would ask “do you drink to get drunk?” And I would answer, “yes. Absolutely. Why else would I want to drink?” I’ve never really enjoyed the taste of alcohol and would get the fruitiest drinks possible. I drank to get drunk.

I dabbled with a few different drugs over the years – marijuana, cocaine, pills. Weed and I quickly became best friends. We were basically inseparable for years. At some point in my late 20s, I decided to quit drinking. I was tired of vomiting profusely just because I wanted to get messed up. And besides, the alcohol was making my life unmanageable. This doesn’t mean I stopped doing anything else. I was smoking pot all day every day. Why not? It felt good and I wasn’t hurting anybody. Alcohol was the problem and I stopped that.

And then 2015 happened. My longtime boyfriend broke up with me a couple weeks before my birthday. My 30th birthday. If any of you follow astrology, you might know that around your 30th birthday, Saturn returns to where it was when you were born. Saturn is known to be the Lord of Karma and it’s said that when it returns, a person has to account for what they have been doing during that time. At 30 years old, I cut my hair super short, dyed it half blue/half purple and started what would become a crippling meth addiction. I started using it here and there, on the weekends and when someone else was buying it. Around Christmas of 2015, I started buying my own and using more and more.

During this time, I was a functioning and productive member of society. I campaigned heavily for Bernie Sanders in Muscatine and the Quad Cities. I recruited and trained new volunteers to our grassroots organization. At the caucus, Muscatine County had Bernie leading Hillary by the largest margin in the state. I started delivering the newspaper in August 2016 and began using meth daily and then multiple times daily.

On November 9, 2016, Donald Trump was elected president. I was depressed and constantly high. A friend messaged me asking if I wanted to make some money and I said sure. A week later I found myself sitting in my car with him, parked across from a bank in Davenport. He robbed the bank and we got away. We got away for five months. I didn’t know he had already robbed one in August, using his own father as the getaway driver. In March 2017, I read online that the same bank was robbed again. I figured it was him. And in early April, the FBI came knocking at my door. Long story short, I spent two years in federal prison in West Virginia, releasing in September 2019.

At one point during my incarceration, an acquaintance asked if I would sign up as Wiccan so I could order tarot cards and sell them to her. This sounded interesting so I made a trip to religious services to talk to the chaplain about it. I soon discovered I really liked Wicca and paganism in general. I had spent the previous 10 years saying I was an atheist but really being an agnostic. I learned if I told people I was an atheist they wouldn’t ask so many questions. So I started attending Wicca services and even some Buddhist services. The services were inmate-led so we basically did whatever felt right to us. I learned about various gods and goddesses and started praying on a regular basis. My friend Kate and I would do basic spells for luck and protection from all the negativity surrounding us. We told people our religion was basically “prayer with arts and crafts.”

During this time, I was still in contact with my homie Pastor Keith. Many of you have heard me mention him before. We developed a bond when I was a sophomore in high school and he hired me to be the secretary at our Lutheran church. He’s been supporting my faith journey for the past 20 years. He encouraged me when I was graduating high school and pondering attending seminary. He listened when I spent 10 years as an atheist/agnostic. And he stuck by me when I became Wiccan/pagan in prison.

Pastor Keith was the first person to suggest I try out the Unitarian Universalist church when I got out of prison. At the time, we thought I would be going back to Muscatine and therefore to the church in Davenport. He told me, “they take everyone. There are Christians, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans.” I was skeptical. These people might be too wacky, even for me.

I ended up transferring my probation to the Northern District of Iowa to move in with my dad. I was released to the halfway house in Waterloo because the Dubuque facility doesn’t have a contract with the Feds. My probation officer for the halfway house asked if I had a church in mind and I told her I was pagan so I didn’t really know where to go. She suggested the local UU church but again I was apprehensive. I ended up going when I learned that I could get two hours of “free” furlough time that didn’t count against my other furlough time to get out of the facility. After my first service at Cedar Valley UU, I was hooked. I loved it so much that I asked my family to join me on their visits. They liked it too.

When I got out of the halfway house and moved in with dad at Leisure Lake, we started attending UUFD. I shortly realized this is where I belonged. I felt a sense of community and knew I could grow here. These, I decided, are my people.

I now consider myself to be more pagan than Wiccan. To get technical and overly wordy (as a “good” UU must), I am an eclectic polytheist. To me, that means I believe in and worship many gods and goddesses, pulling rituals and ideas from multiple sources. My altar currently has a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha, a figurine of the Celtic goddess Brigid and a weird little screaming guy from Vietnam that was given to me by an acquaintance. Along with other random things I felt called to add. My room perpetually smells of incense and I realign my chakras more than I used to go to the chiropractor.

I consider myself a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m not supposed to tell people that. Half of the group name is literally “anonymous.” Yes, I’m only outing myself but even that is frowned upon by some. What if one day I slip and that causes someone to think “See? I told you that program was crap.” But today I am telling you my story and the Twelve Steps are part of that story. I’m going to assume most of you have heard of AA and know a few key words associated with the program. For instance, I was encouraged to develop a relationship with a higher power – a power greater than myself. Remember I came into sobriety as an agnostic. I didn’t know what to believe or even if I believed in anything at all. So at first, like many newcomers, I made the group my higher power because if these people could get sober and stay sober, they obviously knew something I didn’t. At this point, I was at Step Two – “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” While awaiting incarceration, I attended meetings of Narcotics Anonymous in Muscatine. It was there I learned to pray a version of the third Step, “God, if you’re there, take my will and my life, guide me in my recovery and show me how to live. Clean.”

It’s because of my time spent with people in the program that I have a pretty loose definition of the word “god.” Step Three says, “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” That last part is in italics because that’s the most important part. As we understood him. Everyone views their higher power differently and no one is ever asked to defend their definition of their higher power. We just use the word “god” as a placeholder for whatever you want to insert there. I feel like UUs could learn a lot from that concept. When someone says “god” and you don’t vibe with that terminology, try substituting it with your own words. Think of it as whatever resonates with you – Mother Earth, the universe, the spirit, a doorknob. Think of our First Source, which is, “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” We pride ourselves on being accepting of everyone – that includes theists.

It took a while but eventually I shut up enough to hear my higher power speaking to me. And now I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Out of all the gods and goddesses I’m acquainted with, I feel the closest connection to Brigid. She’s a Celtic goddess associated with the hearth and fire and healing and women in general. She’s also a Christian saint. I guess she was so amazing and so loved by her worshipers, that the church decided to just add her to their canon. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

I’m working on my fourth Step – identifying and releasing my resentments and character defects. It’s taking me more time that I’d like to admit but I’m determined to finish it. As the old-timers say, “If you don’t finish your Fourth Step, you drink your Fifth.” That translates to if I don’t let go of my resentments, I’ll go back to drinking and drugging. The program is full of little sayings like that. AAs love their little quips and acronyms. Things such as “One day at a time,” “First Things First,” “Let Go and Let God,” “It works if you work it.” They’re cheesy as heck but so easy to memorize and internalize. If I start to panic and overthink myself, there’s a mantra to help settle my brain and get me back on track. I don’t think about my recovery long term. I focus on today. Can I get through the next 20 years sober? I don’t know. But I can make it through today. If it ever gets to be too much and I feel like I can’t make it through the day, I can make it through the next hour. And when that’s done, I can make it through the next hour. I thank my higher power all the time for helping me stay sober.

You know who else loves acronyms and alliteration? UUs. Oh my gosh. There’s the UUUU – Unitarian Universalist Ukulele Union. There’s CUUPS – the Covenant of UU Pagans. BLUU – Black Lives of UU. ADORE – A Dialogue on Race and Ethnicity. YARN – the Young Adult Revival Network. Our congregation has our own version of YARN – the UUFD YoungUUns, with 2 u’s in the “uns” part. Thanks to Pam Kress-Dunn for giving us that gift. It’s fantastic.

There are other similarities as well. For instance, the part of UUism regarding “deeds not creeds” is like the Twelfth Step and the AA dedication to service work. Step Twelve states, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” The most important person at any meeting is the newcomer, who reminds us all of where we’ve been and where we can easily be at any time. It’s joked that the person in the room with the most sober time is whoever woke up earliest that day. And let me tell you, that’s usually not me.

AAs and UUs are also both very welcoming. You belong when you say you do. The Third Tradition of AA states, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” That’s it. It doesn’t require that you’ve already stopped. Just that you desire to. You’re a member when you say you are.

My faith journey and my recovery journey are so closely intertwined that sometimes I forget where I am. When someone speaks during a service and announces, “Hi, I’m Ethel,” every fiber of my being wants to yell, “Hi Ethel!” I actually was doing that for a while when we were attending services in person. But my friends asked me to stop. One of the joys of Zoom services is that I can say whatever I want while I’m muted. So the joke’s on you!

What advice would I give to someone dealing with addiction and/or alcoholism? Hit up a meeting. There are meetings every day of the week in Dubuque and every hour of the day online. The AA website is a great place to start – They even have an app for smartphones that’s designed just to look up meetings. The logo is a silhouette of a folding chair and I think that’s just adorable. If you have a friend or family member who is dealing with these issues, I’d also send you to the AA website. There’s a thing called Al-Anon. This is a program for those who “are worried about someone with a drinking problem.” It’s perfectly fine to attend if the person has a drug problem instead of, or in addition to, a drinking problem. Seek help first, worry about semantics later. Their website is

Thanks for listening. If you wish to talk further, feel free to email me or text.