Addicts are surprised to learn that recovery requires spirituality. Recovery does not require adopting a theological or religious position. It does require some kind of spiritual practice to work. “It works if you work it,” is a common slogan. They are surprised for one of two reasons.
First, addicted people are emotionally and physically exhausted. Withdrawing from the substance is manifested physically so they naturally assume the problem is physical. They may also feel emotionally numb. Usually addicted people feel anger and don’t realize they are trying to feel something.
Second, they are religious people who pray often.
To recover is to be spiritual. Addiction is a physical issue. Brain imaging techniques demonstrate addicts have a structural change caused by the continued use of the drug of choice. The physical problem is the result of the continued abuse of the substance. The cause is something else.
I have what doctors call “alcohol abuse disorder.” I started drinking heavily at home because of resentments in my life. Being a clergy person often restricts one’s outlets for emotional issues. Barbara Brown Taylor says that she could not be “fully human” as the rector of an Episcopal Church. Clergy members often suffer abuse in silence. But more often pastors suffer from the unmet expectations of congregations and themselves.
The drug of choice is used to cover the resentments and negative emotions. Happy people do not become addicts. The spiritual destruction begins at that point.
“Can’t you just stop?” I was often asked that question by my family. The fact is I did stop. I stopped again. And I stopped another time. I used to joke that my father demonstrated it is easy to quit smoking. He must have done it fifty times. I prove that one can quit drinking until you become chemically dependent.
Chemical dependency must end for the addicted person before spiritual healing can begin. Often this is process of detoxification is done medically. Some people can detox at home. If the withdrawal symptoms are severe a person should seek medical help.
Spirituality helps the addict deal with the emotional issues. While watching Rocket Man, my wife noted I cried during the scene where Elton John brought out his resentments. She was crying too. But she told me, “you have been through this.” I knew what was happening.
Emotional feeling returns when the substance is withdrawn. The negative feelings return. And they do it all at once. The former solution is to drink or pick up again. Spiritual practice is required to manage those feelings.
Let me clear up a mistake often made about spirituality. It is physical and emotional. Why do some people kneel when they pray? Why do some people meditate after yoga? Have you ever noticed that meditators pay careful attention to their breathing? The position or disposition of a person’s body matters in spiritual practices.
Christian spirituality uses the same words for “breath” and “spirit.” The New Testament and Hebrew Bible both do this. I suspect both Hindu and Buddhist traditions understand this too. To be spiritual means “to breathe freely.”
We should ask about the second type of addict described above. People who are religious and pray present a more difficult situation. They are likely to be in less than good physical health. Exercise is often neglected. Healthy eating falls by the wayside. And the emotional health of this person is just as bad. Resentments are still there. There are no emotional outlets. And the person feels guilt for trying to have time away from everything.
Spirituality and Community
Community is important too. Most people are familiar with group meetings as a form of therapy. But most are not familiar with forming a community from this therapy. I not only go to meetings. I go to Christmas dinner with my AA group too. We have labor day parties and cookouts too. The recovery community practices mutual accountability and fellowship. It is not merely talk therapy. Celebrate Recovery is a similar community recovery model. Other programs such as Recovery Dharma have specific practices tied to certain religions.
All recovery communities forms around certain spiritual principles. The most important one is honesty. Be true and truthful. Addiction inhibits insight. It is important for a person to tell the truth without feeling judged.
There are many options to getting better. But all of them, I think, have at their core a healthy spirituality.