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 co-founder 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.

Maintenance of your spiritual condition

Here are some spiritual tools you can use to stay connected to God day to day. Next to each of the six items, I suggest specific practices. But of course, you should find what works for you. By having these six areas covered, you can devote far less energy to struggling to maintain your spiritual condition. Of course, you will slip up. It’s just like exercise: You know it’s good for you. You know you’ll feel better. But you don’t always do it. I hope you find something useful here.

  1. Daily morning prayers — some fixed prayers to frame the day: the Serenity Prayer; the Lord’s Prayer; “Lord, I pray that I be of maximum usefulness to you and my fellows throughout this day, and that I find it easy to take the next right actions” — and a free-form period: briefly recall yesterdays achievements and events and thank God; briefly consider today’s events and ask for guidance and wisdom to make the best of what lies ahead; pray for spiritual guides, past and present, for those to whom you give guidance or support, and for anyone in your life facing a challenge.
  2. Daily meditation — See my earlier column on meditation.
  3. Daily spiritual reading — Daily readers, Scripture, or other spiritual books. The practice of following prayer and meditation with some careful spiritual reading is powerful. It grounds your day. And sometimes it triggers contemplation that leads to breakthroughs and insights that are life-changing. Be a student in our spiritual journey.
  4. Throughout the day — Use various tools and techniques to maintain or restore serenity — meditation; the Welcoming Prayer; counting to ten; praying the Rosary — there are dozens of useful tools for this.
  5. Regular recovery-focused group work — Opinions vary on frequency, but regular and frequent is the rule, not the exception. It is the experience of millions that A.A. is the most effective approach and A.A. meetings are available nearly everywhere. Other options include Rick Warren’s Celebrate Recovery and the Jewish organization, JACS.
  6. Before bed — Review the day, letting go of any residue of bad feelings. Two methods for this are the 11th Step of 12 Step programs and the Ignatian Examen of Consciousness — which are strikingly similar.