Spirituality and Recovery
Why drug and alcohol recovery is spiritual
I’ve tried to get sober many times and failed. After so many repeated failures, I’ve had the opportunity to examine what kept causing me to slip up. It all boils down to one thought or feeling.
“There is no point to life. The world is a messed-up, evil place. You live, and you die, and there is no higher meaning.”
I still struggle with this. Essentially, it’s an existential crisis. These thoughts can be so overwhelming that it feels like I have no choice but to get drunk. And I know from experience, getting drunk completely erases this feeling of dread.
More than anything, this is what perpetuates my addiction. If there is no point in anything, if life is meaningless, there’s no reason not to drink. This is a big part of why people continue to use substances despite terrible consequences, even when facing the loss of freedom, sanity, and life itself.
After suffering consequences, motivation to maintain abstinence from intoxicants is high. Unfortunately, the existential dread creeps back in.
Without addressing the deeper issue of meaning, people with substance use disorder are much more likely to relapse.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Upon getting sober this time, I was fortunate to happen upon a life-changing book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Viktor Frankl was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps during the holocaust. He noticed that those who survived did so because they could hold onto some greater meaning or purpose. This could be reuniting with loved ones or finishing some vital work in the future. But, the most powerful of all was a strong faith in God or some spiritual meaning.
Those who had this higher meaning could endure great hardships and still find some trivial amount of joy even in the worst of circumstances. Those who lost all hope quickly succumbed to the terrible conditions and perished.
Based on this evidence, Frankl founded the third Viennese school of psychotherapy utilizing the technique of logotherapy. According to this perspective, many disorders are based on a lack of meaning, and by finding meaning disorders will cease to exist.
The Search for Meaning and Addiction
Without a higher meaning of some sort, a person suffering from addiction is more vulnerable to relapse. Advances in neuroscience have shown us that addiction works on the brain in a way that mimics what we experience when we are in mortal danger. It can feel like a life-or-death decision, like we will die if we don’t get high.
Ironically, it is a life-or-death decision in the sense that continuing to use dramatically increases the chances of death.
In the face of a life-or-death struggle, having some spiritual meaning is the best and most powerful defense. Believing that there is some higher purpose to existence can grant us the strength to endure great suffering. From personal experience, I can attest to this, and there are countless stories of miraculous recoveries from afflictions that also attest to this.
If logotherapy is correct, simply finding a higher meaning to life can defeat the disorder of addiction.
In Defense of 12 Step Recovery
Alcoholics Anonymous, and other 12 step-based recovery programs, propose that a spiritual experience or psychic change is needed to recover. Recovery comes from a higher power of one’s own understanding. An appendix to Alcoholics Anonymous’s main text clarifies that a psychic change of any sort is synonymous with this spiritual change. Members are even encouraged to use the group as their higher power if they can not identify with the god concept. Living for others can provide a powerful motivation for making the right decision when we are too weak to make it for ourselves.
This aspect of the program comes under much criticism. Substance use disorder is an acknowledged mental illness, a disease. Typically, we treat diseases scientifically. Any treatment involving spiritual notions reeks of quackery.
I have rejected help from AA and related programs numerous times based on these objections. Numerous people have.
Thanks to reading Frankl’s book and my realization that existential crisis, or lack of meaning, is the root of my problem, I am no longer so quick to dismiss AA’s message of a spiritually-based recovery from addiction.