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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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June 8th, 2009

What Works: Spiritual Recovery

Becoming free from alcoholism and addiction requires spiritual help, not self-help



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. But today I live — and have for some time now — free, awake, fully alive, vital.

My earlier What Works column on alcoholism and addiction focused on self-diagnosis, and 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 alcohol.

As I said about not getting enough sleep, when you don’t feel connected to God, 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. As I’ve said before, 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. You don’t drink because you’re irritable; you drink because you’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. How often we cause suffering by not accepting the way things are.

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.

The sidebar at right lists some spiritual tools to support sobriety. I hope you find something useful there.

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 I was an alcoholic and 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? Email me at phil at bustedhalo.com or comment below.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also 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 on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Richard G. Burns, J.D., CDAAC

    You have touched on a key link to early A.A.’s reliance on God and coming to Him through Jesus Christ. It has all but disappeared because of changes made in the Big Book just before it was published in 1939. Your readers might be interested in my title God and Alcoholism http://www.dickb.com/godandalcoholism.shtml.
    God Bless, Dick B.

  • Eric Quevauvilliers

    In Gratitude – Thank You.
    A powerful article to which I fully relate.

    You’re right – Recovery is not self help,
    If it had not been – someone(today I know it is God) I would never have heard nor seen the warning signs – all in the space of a week – 2 people I respected and my wife saying she had enough – For 35 years I would never admit I had a problem.

    Anyway my journey has been, I was willing to give recovery a try. For 6 weeks I rationalised. I eventually understood I could change, but only if I accepted that I needed to forgive myself before I could receive forgivness. I have to learn to love myself before I can receive love. And yes all these gift come with no strings attached. That was the difficult realisation and all of this is in the Bible and Jesus Gospel. I spent so long looking for what there was in it for me.

    For me to understand – a Power greater than myself – I came to the realisation that without people in my life I was very lonely, full of self pity and resentful. So I openned the door to others – I let them in and I shared my desperation. The fact that they related and told me their story helped me undstand that I was not alone.

    This is the tagible realistion.

    The spiritual realisation came about in the time I was alone- the “sleep time”, the driving time. All in my own head.

    I have to find a way to believe and trust my own thoughts- and this realistaion and trust in my thoghts has been – Let go and let God.

    Today I’m back in church – I’m learning to embrace God through the Church. And I am learning to understand the sacraments.

    I now listen to the readings and the sermon- Not what’s in it for me – but how do I relate to the message. And funnily enough I realise there is always a message. Why, because my life has become dynamic – today – the past is the past, I’m no longer a hostage.

    In understanding the message I know that I can trust what’s in my head- that my intuition has been rejuvinated by God – I can trust myself today – I can do the right thing today and know the difference, because it’s not all about me. It’s about God’s will for me and I have learnt to understand some of God’s will through People who come into my life. Yes people have a strong message for me.

    I also realsised that my spiritual life stopped the day I started drinking. So today, being 6 years sober, I am spiritually 22 years old. I have found youth in my relationship with God. I relate to my children and only have an experiance to share – No longer an opinion. Physical age just means I do things slower.

    I gratitude I thank God for my spiritual youth, my physical age, is only a draw back in terms on how I look after myself, and I have years still to go because I know that only God has the stop watch on my biological clock.

    So as much as I have a spiritual dimension in my life – the day to day apsects of my life are the same worries – ROOF, FOOD and PHYSICAL Contact others, I also add is it enough of do I fall into the hoarding syndrom. Again is all about me.

    Recovery teaches me that that by the Grace of God I am but ONE drink away from a new nightmare and I the choice is mine alone. If I stop hearing the message through God’s people I WILL loose myself and may the wrong choice.

    So just for today I choose to find the message, I choose to interact with People, I choose the trust what’s in my head and if I cannot trust these thoughts I tell someone, I pick up the phone and keep trying till I hear the message again.

    In friendship and Love
    – Eric

  • Jennie

    Thanks for this great article! Very helpful info.

  • Soberguy

    AA is the real deal, great article Phil!

  • Gary

    This is in responce to Yulissa. The spiritual life is not just about life on earth….You might be able to clean up with out God but where will you be when you leave this life? Also i would be willing to bet that the great majority of people who try sobriety and don’t utilize a higher power will fail. Bill might not have meant for a.a. to be tied to evangelization but he surely meant for it to be tied to a higher power (God). Surely you can see that in steps 2,3,5,6,7,11. Yulissa you claim you became healthy without using God,But were you set free?

  • Bob S.

    Hello Phil, great article!
    I began needing to get sober in the 1980’s. I tried every form of will power and self control I could think of. I tried moderation, abstinence, exercise, self control, self-help books, new friends, no friends, even different politics.

    Early on I had some periods of success (4 1/2 years once) but was always miserable inside no matter how much better my circumstances and livelihood got. I always drank and used again. I even read some of the AA Big Book once and heard of religious conversion sobriety but I avoided those like the plague. My addiction progressed each time and my methods of getting clean began to be psychotherapy, medication, jails and institutions. None of them worked, I even got high on probation and in jail. I was baffled because I could control myself in other areas of my life but not my alcoholism and addiction. I finally became willing to try a spiritual solution out of desperation.

    When I tried the 12 Step method I found a type of sobriety that was free from the craving and struggle! I didn’t just achieve abstinence, my life got better too! I knew that this was the true solution for me, it was recovery. But, after some clean time I relapsed. I repeated this a few times and was baffled at why I couldn’t STAY sober. In examining my relapses I found that I treated the spiritual work as one-time events and not disciplines of spiritual fitness. I realized that when it came to continued personal inventory, prayer, meditation, practice of virtues (not just talk), and carrying the message, I would always start to coast and not do them as specified on the Big Book of AA.

    When I prayed every day I found myself getting more connected to that Power that restored me to sanity. When I took inventory every day I found that I didn’t accumulate great emotional disturbances and I gradually bean to get free of my hang ups. In time my disordered sexuality became ordered and I became more content in my marriage, my expectations of others diminished and my conflicts were fewer, I began to see that my excessive desires ruled me and I became free from them, I even quit smoking and became open to life and had 3 more kids. They have never seen me drink or use.

    The greatest gift I received was a progression of spiritual understanding and a deepening of faith. I didn’t just believe in a fairy-tale god of blind faith, I was able to reason through all my questions and doubts. I went from a non-specific spirituality, to the God of Abraham, to Christianity, and finally back home to the Catholic church.

    One day I sat down after taking the Eucharist and I sensed God speaking to me. He informed me that I was questioning my need for continuing involvement in 12 step fellowships since I was now closer to Him than ever in the Church. He told me unequivocably that I need to always remember that I am a recovered addict/alcoholic and that this is a spiritual gift that I need to use to perform his work well.

    Today I continue my 12 step practices as you outlined in the sidebar, I carry the message of the spiritual solution in AA and Cocaine Anonymous, and I go to mass every Sunday. I have a great life, a great wife, kids, home, and lots of friends.

    Thanks again for the article and thanks be to God for recovery!

    Bob S.

  • Matt

    Great article Phil! Very insightful.
    Do you think if they changed from Communion Wine to Jack Daniels more people would see Jesus? (8=O (just kidding)

  • Catholic

    Excellent article! What stood out in particular was the “caveat addictus” paragraph. It can be quite easy to try and “fill ourselves up” with the spiritual life – forgetting we are indeed living in the natural world, too. We need to take care of our bodies! God also gave us the gift of our life which includes aspects of our material reality (genetics, personality, talents, intellect, fertility, physicality, etc.).

    You described this wonderfully in your explanation of drinking wine at potlucks before Bible study (!!!!) – you remembered more deeply who *you* are as God made *you.* This aspect of ourselves is where we can absolutely grow in humility. Meditating on the fall in Genesis can be a very powerful exercise with this, too.

    A friend once theorized an addict “hasn’t taken a real risk in their life.” And that very real risk is to let God be God.

    May God bless you.

  • Yulissa

    As an alcoholic myself (7 1/2 years sober) I’m all for people taking back control of their lives but telling readers that they will fail unless they accept God is frighteningly manipulative. Mr. Rose, I can respect the fact that you needed God’s help to overcome your addictions but that doesn’t mean that every addict out there shares that weakness.

    I became healthy without that help, recognizing that my focus was on the wrong things. Bill never intended AA to become tied to evangelization.

  • Amye

    Dear Phil!
    I found your essay extremely powerful. I literally had tears in my eyes. Thank you for sharing this;I am truly a fan. I intend on passing this along to all my “spiritual” friends and I look forward to reading all of your articles. You are a very special man and I am grateful to know you.

  • A friend

    Your self-disclosure is brave. I agree that one fills the void of non-connectedness with whatever one can get their hands on. I also believe that being bereft of a spiritual base is the root cause of most emotional illness.

  • Alli

    Thank you for this article…especially from the perspective of what is spiritual. AA is an exceelent resource to uncover the God-shaped hole and that alcohol (and pills, drugs, shopping, food etc…) will never fully fill that…and that real recovery is rooted in surrender to a Higher Power (at 46 days sober…similarly ‘sleep walking’–with bottles of wine, Paxil, and Xanax in my system–I am much happier to be sober…even when it proves to be so difficult). Thank you for bringing this difficult but important topic to light.

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