Spiritual Recovery

If you are an alcoholic or addict, being spiritually unfit can be fatal. If not literally fatal then, as in my case, a living death. One definition of Hell is being alive and active in this world, feeling separated from God. And I spent years there. I could easily explain my own alcoholism by pointing to genetics and circumstances; but the root cause is spiritual — that God-shaped hole, that feeling of brokenness and alienation I was trying to assuage. I’ve met other alcoholics who had no obvious “causes” but I think we all share a spiritual longing.

Carl Jung wrote to Alcoholics Anonymous cofounder Bill Wilson that “craving for alcohol” is “the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness,” famously concluding the letter “spiritus contra spiritum” — the Spirit against spirits.

When you don’t feel connected, it’s easy to slip into irritability. A more accurate word is probably “sullenness.” And, if you’ll forgive a moment of word-nerdiness, “sullen” comes from the same root as “solo” and originally meant “alone.” How fitting, because that’s really what’s going on — you feel alone in the universe.

Recovery is not self-help

Let me be as clear as possible here: Recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction is not about self-help. The solution is not to gain knowledge and strength and willpower so you can beat it. It’s not even to admit you have a problem. Recovery is about recognizing that, alone, you are powerless to solve the problem. To receive the grace you need to recover, you must admit you need help from something greater than yourself.

The problem is spiritual, and so is the answer. This is why sobriety, or at least a happy sober life, depends on looking after your spiritual health. An alcoholic doesn’t drink because they’re irritable; they drink because they’re an alcoholic. But without the serenity that awareness and connectedness bring, alcohol or drugs can start looking like a good answer again.

I’ve seen countless souls struggle to stay sober with just their own willpower. Some fight through until grace comes. Some relapse again and again. Some give up and never make it back.

So, to stay sober you stay connected to God and other people — as much as possible, that is. Because we all slip back into disconnectedness and the illusion of control. Addiction is a stark example of self-will, but all people struggle with self-will and attachment, with expectations and resentments. That’s why addiction is often used as a metaphor for the struggle of life.

Many people lead lives of quiet desperation, trying to fill the God-shaped hole and cover the pain with shopping, eating, and a million distractions. But addicts and alcoholics are physically predisposed to escape or numb themselves in ways that go directly into a downward spiral of self-destruction. My last few years before sobriety, life was little more than an isolated routine of coming to, muddling around in the apartment, watching TV, and mixing alcohol, Vicodin and Ambien to make things fuzzy until I passed out. Talk about sleepwalking through life.

Let go and let God

Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38) He was quoting Hebrew Scripture, Deuteronomy 6:5. In even simpler terms, “Trust God.”

But, of course, we resist depending on God, don’t we? The serpent said to Eve: “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”. (Genesis 3:5) Pride. We try, again and again, to play God; we try to manage the world, our own destiny, other people.

The thing is, once you dedicate yourself to figuring out life without God, you find yourself smack dab in self-centered fear. Suddenly, managing the universe is your problem, and you know you’re not up to the task. My biggest trigger used to be trying to control what everyone thought of me. (I can still go there sometimes.)

Notice whenever life feels unmanageable. You’ll probably find it’s when you think you have to solve something on your own.

Spiritual tools

“Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today,” is the opening line of one of the most popular passages in recovery literature. What a challenge! To simply accept that things are the way they are. Could they be changed? Perhaps. Improved? It’s possible. But right in this moment, things are the way they are. To find acceptance of this is tremendous freedom and tremendous relief. This is why I am such a strong advocate of meditation. Meditation created the opening that began my journey toward greater authenticity. It continues to be a guide along the way, daily practice in detachment and acceptance.

The therapeutic and medical communities dissect the psychological and physiological aspects of addiction but often neglect or even deny the spiritual component. Self-help gurus say you can beat this addiction or that by learning their secrets. But the most helpful resource on the spiritual dimension of recovery remains A.A.’s foundational book, Alcoholics Anonymous (usually called the Big Book.) When it was written in the 1930s, A.A. was more single-minded in its view that recovery was a spiritual project. That approach is outlined in the book and still practiced by many in A.A.

Caveat addictus

I want to make something absolutely clear before I close. A spiritual practice alone, without work specifically for addiction, is problematic. Worse, it’s all too easy for addicts and alcoholics to convince themselves they’re covered through meditation or church attendance. Not likely. After years of sobriety, as lay leader of my congregation, I started drinking wine at potlucks before Bible study! I’d forgotten that I simply cannot drink safely — no matter how spiritual I may think I am.

What are your experiences at the crossroads of recovery and spirituality? How has your spiritual practice informed your understanding of, or struggles with, alcoholism and addiction? Id love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • J.S.

    I appreciate the honesty you bring to the conversation. Addiction, like many other sins, is searching for God in the wrong places. Those with traumatic pasts many times turn to addictive substances and behaviors to fill the need for God in our lives. Yet I find that it isn’t as easy as just turning to God. Like the behavior and psychological elements of addiction recoverya, so to spiritual recovery is complicated and messy. In my experience Evangelical christianity is a difficult fit for addicts because of the history of exclusivity. Having been raised an evangelical Christian and having attended Christian centered recovery groups I have not been able to “find” God. The spiritual hole remains, despite spending the last fifteen years searching for God in evangelicalism. I have not been able to pinpoint the problem, but I know my basic understanding of God and Christianity have to change. So in essence you are right. Until the spiritual condition is dealt with there is very little hope. At this point all I can take from Christianity is that God wants to have a relationship with me. I need to throw everything else away. The shame based theology of the Christian church needs to be replaced by a relational theology. Primarily believing that God wants to have a relationship with us, whether we are sober or in full addictive mode. Ultimately it isn’t about recovery, sobriety, or righteous living, it is about God reaching out for us no matter who or what we are. For an addict to be able to accept themselves, they must believe that God accepts them. Instead of the traditional this is what you must to do to remain in good standing with God, the church, others in recovery, we must revert back to the never ending acceptance and love God has for us. Not as an excuse, but as a constant starting point. We must accept that our behaviors have consequences, but the consequence is never that God no longer wants a relationship with us or that we need to change if we are to have a relationship with God.

  • Yoyo

    I’m very sorry but this has no resonance at all for me, not even the sniff of truth. A) I have serious philosophical and scientific problems with the disease model of addiction linked to the aa, na etc. B) by your analysis aetheist addicts have no hope while remaining aetheist and conversely “good ” religious people should not have problems with addiction. Both assumptions are demonstrably false. I am glad that your religion has provided you with solace or support beyond that it has precious little to do with the psychological and physical indicators of addiction and it is not good or kind to conflate the two.

  • jerry lynch

    Perhaps what I see in the essentials of AA is different than how it is viewed by most in the program. For me, it works only from a Christian perspective and no other “God of our understanding.” It is for a certain ilk.

    Most of the problems in AA and the lessening of its impact to maintain sobriety has come with trying to make it into a panacea. People who don’t want it are forced to attend by courts and probation. Many treatment centers make it part of their outpatient program, even though the therapeutic model is a bad fit for what AA represents. AA is decidely not “self-help” or ego enhancing.

    The objection to the “disease” model only answers to the god of Reason: it is a spiritual malady. The answers society now has for this “malady” are quite different than what AA prescribes. The spiritual foundation of AA is “principles before personalities”: to make oneself a “living sacrifice.” The “self must die daily,” not be improved. The Steps and Principles, to me, are a mystical journey of euthanasia: the mercy of allowing the steady reduction (death) of the “false self” through a growing opening to the care of Christ–not a doorknob, Buddha, Group of Drunks, or anything else. The quality of sobriety, not just the quantity of years, is the point. The few I have met over twenty-eight years who demonstrate all the promises in their lives are those who have come into a profound relationship with Christ-consciousness, and none of which is a traditional Christian.

    “Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today”: yes and no. Real acceptance most often comes with a cost and is not simply a mental adjustment. To find real acceptance usually means a period of mourning, and “blessed are they that mourn.” It is coming to see how not just are character defects and shortcomings have hurt ourselves, others, and stolen precious time from our lives and those we care for, it is also coming to see that much of our values and beliefs, the good we saw in ourselves, was just as damaging. To see life on life’s terms means a process whose end is to bring us to a place of neutrality about our story.

    I do not accept another person for who he or she is; this produces caricatures drawn and painted by my filter. I accept who I am with that person, which puts the onus on me, frees them from a cage of my perception, and reveals what it is in me that renders such judgments. I do not tolerate others, which is part of acceptance and laden with judgment. The transcendance comes in the movement from acceptance to compassion, a non-dualistic view of others. This is not overlooking their faults or problems but removing it from how it affects me to only how it can harm or influence them. Mercy becomes foremost in relationship.

    Yet none of this is at my own direction or intent. Practicing the principles without regard to loss or gain, image or safety, success or failure while placing myself in the care of God allows spirit to reveal, bring into the light, those dark and hidden things pulling my strings from the subconscious. I do not strive for anything. There are no goals to make or progress to note. No comparisons. Nothing happens to me or for me, I realize; it all happens within me. Reality is only in the heart, the life I get is there. The unburdening process of the Steps and Principles liberates the heart to be what God intended: a free-flowing instrument of his love.

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  • LM

    The only requirement for membership (in AA) is a desire to stop drinking. That’s it plain & keeping it simple. Atheists have nothing to fear or to fight with. When Ebby sat down with Bill W. on that afternoon in the 1930′s he said the words, that opened the door to a spiritual awakening: “He said, ‘why don’t you choose your own conception of God?’”. (Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous 16th printing, Copyright 1939, page 13).

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  • Joe

    Within the last 2 years, dedicating much time in prayer and meditation, I have came to this conclusion: God does not work for me, He works through me!

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