This blog addresses the third factor “spirituality,” which is integral to anyone’s addiction recovery. Whether your goal is abstinence or moderation and harm reduction, these five factors (structure, supervision, spirituality, social support and substitution) are essential components of successful and healthy drug and alcohol and other addiction recovery. What follows is Teddy Kradzinski’s personal account through therapeutic journaling of the role that spirituality plays in his recovery. You can link to these other important aspects of recovery at the end of this article/blog. Remember, you don’t have to have all five factors for your addiction recovery to be successful but you can’t just have one. While most of the words herein are Ted’s, I have added and edited some to include elements of George Vaillant’s evidence-based research into these factors which I call the Five S’s of Addiction Recovery. We encourage all people seeking change in their substance use, or those looking for change in other mental health areas and general well-being to explore the ways in which they are engaged in these vital areas of life. — Jeremy Frank, Ph.D., C.A.D.C., Psychologist and Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor.
Spirituality is an aspect of recovery I’ve found essential to my well-being. It is the essence of the psychic change I need to remain in recovery. If “spirituality” seems like a vague and abstract concept, that’s probably because it is. I cannot give you a definitive definition of spirituality or tell you how to have a spiritual experience. Perhaps this is for the best—presenting set directions might prevent you from making your own way, naturally and organically, toward finding a power greater than yourself—what AA calls “Higher Power.” “A power greater than yourself”—what is “yourself” in this context? I interpret it as one’s ego. The twelve steps have been called “an ego deflator.” When our ego melts away, what is left? That is something for each of us to discover individually.
The word “spirituality” turns off some people because it evokes the concept of god. That is understandable, of course, but it’s helpful to remember that “god” can be conceived of in infinite ways: spirit, the one, the cosmos, the great beyond, the Higher Power of AA, and countless others. The point is to develop one’s own compelling sense of what is “greater than yourself” and, from that, pursue spiritual experiences that are authentic and meaningful for you. There are no rules—as they say, all rivers lead to the sea.
I came to be open to a spiritual experience from a place of circumstance, not a place of virtue. I was not driven by a moral quest to find god. Before coming to spirituality, I tried everything else under the sun to stay sober—but these efforts were not successful. What was left for me was to surrender to the possibility of believing in a power that could restore me to sanity. It was a “gift of desperation.” Addiction is like that. I suspect that, in contemporary American life, it’s the leading converter of non believers into believers.
At its core, spirituality is a willingness to accept help from something beyond your own thinking mind. I wasn’t able to solve my problem exclusively through my own thoughts. I had to become open-minded and receptive to ideas that were new for me, such as spirituality, thereby becoming my own channel for embracing change and changing myself. I imagine this could happen for others in ways that don’t involve the more mystical or metaphysical aspects of spirituality. A sense of Higher Power is essential, but that sense can be based in life as lived on this Earth. I find meaning and power in a mystical and metaphysical approach to spirituality, but I encourage you to explore your own truth.
Let’s take a look at some practical aspects of spirituality. First, if we consider spirituality a fantasy land, we should also consider the degree of fantasy we live with daily when we place all our faith in our thinking mind. Consider the delusions that led us down a path of addiction. Spirituality can quiet that delusional mind by activating positive rather than self-destructive imaginings. Both types of imagining impact us biologically—they affect our brain chemistry and, psychologically, how we perceive the world. We are always telling ourselves some narrative or another—why not tell ourselves positive tales? Perhaps we can find a way to quiet this narrative-telling and devote time to observing what happens when we quiet our mind. This could be a way to find and embrace a spirituality that is authentic for you. Such an approach is not new—Zen Buddhism reminds people to be mindful and present in everything we experience.
Prayer is emphasized in AA for a reason. Whether or not you believe in the metaphysical aspects of prayer, reciting them in a mantra-like way—regularly and repeatedly—changes your mind, literally: it rewires your brain and adjusts your thought-patterns. If I find myself stuck in a negative thought-pattern, saying the Serenity Prayer stops the cycle of negativity and builds positive momentum. Our brains do not automatically “choose a favorite” when it comes to thinking positively or negatively. A story from Cherokee tradition speaks of the two wolves inside our being, a negative wolf and a positive wolf. A child asks an elder “Which wolf wins?” The answer: whichever one you feed. The simplicity of this metaphor does not diminish its relevance. Changing how we think—what we feed the brain—may not be the cure for addiction, but it is an important part of the process of recovery.
I encourage everyone to experiment with prayer, the Twelve Steps, meditation, yoga—practices that have a proven ability to change and improve the way we think. Try these foundational tools and see where they lead you. Proceeding toward peace using these tools is a different journey for everyone who undertakes it. Finding peace may take weeks, months, years or a lifetime—there’s no set schedule. In the study “Spiritual Direction in Addiction Treatment: Two Clinical Trials,” the researchers suggest that “If spiritual formation is a developmental phenomenon that unfolds naturally over time, like cognitive or moral development, it may not be amenable to acute interventions designed to speed up the process” (Miller 2009). We cannot force anyone to have a spiritual experience or promise a specific outcome from the experience. This is troubling for loved ones of addicts—they are desperate for a solution; realizing the solution cannot be forced causes them deep anxiety and frustration. This is, perhaps, why loved ones of addicts often find Twelve Step programs helpful for themselves.
Is it possible that spirituality is an essential part of recovery, but one that science cannot fully comprehend? I would say yes, but that does not mean science cannot help us along in the spiritual component of our journey. We look to science to identify and/or create quantifiable and reliable treatments and cures. It appears, however, spirituality does not lend itself to testing according to the established scientific-process. Spirituality is not predictable. I hope our culture will come to accept and embrace both science and spirituality as enormously helpful tools for recovery, ones that may reveal themselves to be intertwined in ways we do not yet understand.
Addiction has beaten me down and humbled me. I wake every morning and beg my higher power to keep me sober. I thank my higher power at night for having done so. I pray to be healed so I may heal others. I pray for help so I may help others. This is all part of my ego being put in its place—of recognizing and accepting that existence has a greater purpose, but one that’s beyond my ego’s ability to understand. I have learned to have faith in the shape my life takes and embrace things as they are. I cannot control much of what happens in my life, I can control only my responses. Most of my suffering is like watching a parade go by and wishing it were different. I have learned to make peace with the parade through acceptance. Paradoxically, accepting things as they are allows change to occur. When I allow things to run their course, they proceed as they need to happen. I no longer get in the way as much, which means I’m less often my own worst enemy. Trying to explain this spiritual experience is a fool’s quest. It is not conceptual and does not really lend itself to words. However, I can say with certainty that allowing my authentic spiritual experience to happen has enabled my ongoing recovery, and that is a miracle.
I sometimes wonder whether my suffering is something for which I should be grateful. Without the contrast of darkness, how could I see light? I know that, if I make the effort to see my addiction and recovery as part of a bigger picture, my trials and tribulations take on meaning beyond the pain they cause me. Instead of perceiving and experiencing addiction and other challenges large and small as errors and mistakes, I can understand them as parts of the evolution of my consciousness. However, thinking of suffering as something of a blessing cannot be used as an excuse to continue using. We must learn from our suffering and take the action necessary to transform ourselves. An analogy: if we want to cross a river, we can use a canoe; once we cross the river, does it make sense to drag that canoe around with us? No—that would make the rest of our journey more difficult. My point: although suffering has taught me so much, I must let it go or I am doomed to repeat the same mistakes. If that were to happen, there may come a time when I drown in the river rather than cross it.
I have heard it said that god is everything or god is nothing; that the higher power is everything or the higher power is nothing. I have learned this to be true. All of life becomes the teacher— the higher power. When I embrace, accept, and have faith in life, things tend to move in a positive direction. Spirituality can be that simple
Vaillant, G. E. (2005). “Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?” Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 39(6), 431–436. https://doi.org/10.1080/j.1440-1614.2005.01600.x
Miller, W. R., A. Forcehimes, M. J. O’Leary, and M. D. LaNoue (2008). “Spiritual direction in addiction treatment: two clinical trials.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 35(4), 434-42.
Suttie, J. (n.d.). “Drug Addiction, Social Connection, and the Brain.” Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/drug_addiction_social_connection_and_the_brain