by Allen Nohre Many of you read the title and have probably already answered with, “Of course it is!” because the spiritual component of recovery is vitally important. Some may...
by Allen Nohre
Many of you read the title and have probably already answered with, “Of course it is!” because the spiritual component of recovery is vitally important. Some may wonder why bother with an obvious topic, after all, the partnership of spirituality and addiction recovery has a long history for many recovering people.
But, I was curious about the transformational process. I wanted to talk to people who are enjoying the rewards of recovery and hear directly from them how important aspects of spirituality may, or may not, be core in their heroic journey from addiction to recovery. I also wanted to hear from people who are currently in addiction treatment and find out if they think spirituality is important to getting started in their recovery.
To find answers to these questions I conducted in-depth interviews with people who have many years of successful recovery. I asked them what role spirituality plays in their recovery. Secondly, 207 people in outpatient substance abuse treatment in TERROS programs were surveyed during October and November of 2011. They were asked a series of questions about recovery and spirituality.
Three different perspectives
The in-depth interviews with ten recovering people yielded rich and thoughtful responses. Most, but not all, said personal spirituality is an important part of their ongoing recovery and a vital aspect of their daily life. The following statements are samples from my interviews and they represent three different views and experiences.
Gary, a hospital chaplain said, “When I was drinking I wanted inspiration and even transcendence, but I was going about it in the wrong way. Now my recovery process gives me the inspiration I was seeking. My spirituality is aligning with what I call ‘my source,’ my term for God or higher power. My sense of alignment with others, with myself and the universe is an intuitive sense of being led by divine guidance.”
Rachel was heavy into drugs by the age of sixteen. When I interviewed her she had been clean for eight years. She said, “I don’t believe in God and I don’t go to church. I didn’t go to recovery groups because I didn’t want religion forced on me. But, recently I started going to a recovery group because I got scared and felt I needed help to stay in recovery. My ability to deal with my powerlessness against narcotics and meth comes from my recovery system, not a higher power. Spirituality, to me, is nature. Nature and meditation centers me and uplifts and balances me.”
And a third person, Susan, who is a counselor, described her spirituality as based in Christianity, yet she doesn’t limit herself to that religion. She said, “Jesus is my higher power, but participating in Native American spiritual activities is also important to me. I meditate, pray, attend worship services and recovery groups, support others in working the Twelve Steps and sponsor others in recovery – that’s my spiritual practice.”
Each of the people I interviewed, described their spirituality as something very personal. There are common characteristics but each person’s experience is unique.
What is spirituality?
The best definitions of spirituality come from the personal experience of people in recovery. They are not academic definitions by clergy, theologians or philosophers; they are descriptions by the practitioners of spirituality and recovery. I asked them to describe what they mean by spirituality. Here are some of their responses:
“Spirituality is the foundation of my recovery.”
“Spirituality is radically individual. When it becomes prescriptive it loses its power.”
“My recovery is a spiritual alignment with the transcendent divine.”
“Spirituality is different than religion – it is home-built by a person.”
“Forgiving my father when I was in treatment was a huge spiritual experience for me.”
“After I got sober, I was still wrapped up in a ball; it is my spirituality that has taken me beyond sobriety to ‘secondary recovery’ that is a place of peace and serenity.”
“Spirituality is integrity with myself, feeling clean and doing the right thing.”
“My recovery is much more than 22 years of not drinking – it has been 22 years of personal growth and spiritual development.”
Alcoholics Anonymous and spirituality
The partnership of addiction recovery and spirituality began with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) seventy-five years ago to help alcoholics stop their destructive drinking. At the heart of the AA program is the belief and practice of recovery from addiction as a spiritual experience and journey that connects alcoholics or addicts to each other and to a higher power. AA’s process for recovery is laid out in the iconic Twelve Step Program. Seven of the steps refer either to God, a higher power or a spiritual awakening. For example:
“We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us.”
“We made a decision to turn our lives to the care of God, as we understood him.”
“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
AA’s emphasis on spirituality came from the Oxford Group, an evangelical protestant movement in the early part of the twentieth century. Bill W., widely regarded as the key founder of AA, describes how his vision for helping alcoholics grew out of his experience with the Oxford Group. He wrote;
“In the wake of my spiritual experience, there came a vision of a society of alcoholics, each identifying with and transmitting his (sic) experience to the next – chain style.”
Referring to God as a “higher power …as we understood him,” minimizes debates about specific religions, dogmas and beliefs. The challenge AA faced when it was launched, and the challenge faced today by every treatment program, addiction counselor and recovering addict, is describing, accurately and authentically, the nature of addiction and the successful path to recovery, without prescribing sectarian religious teachings. This is not an easy task because there are common elements and strong feelings in the experiences of recovery, spirituality and religion.
In a recent article in Together AZ, the Reverend Leo Booth wrote on the subject:
“Thank God, and I really mean thank God, when Alcoholics Anonymous wrote the Twelve Steps, it stated ‘having had a spiritual awakening …’ as opposed to ‘having had a religious awakening …’ because then we would be forced to ask ‘which religion?’ That would have created a political and psychological nightmare.”
A survey about spirituality
Most of the recovering people I interviewed said spirituality was important for their recovery. I also wanted to find out how people, currently in a treatment program, feel about the place of spirituality in their recovery. A confidential survey was completed by 207 participants in 15 TERROS treatment groups.
The written instructions were:
“For simplicity, and for the purposes of this survey, the terms spirituality and faith will be used synonymously, although some people make a distinction between them. The term will be written ‘spirituality/faith.’ Spirituality and faith is something quite personal. For that reason the survey does not define ‘spirituality/faith’ nor does it define ‘recovery’.”
Who completed the survey?
The people who completed the survey were relatively young and early into their recovery.
24% were younger than 25
43% were 26 to 40
31% were 41 to 60
2% were over 60
They were asked, “How long have you been in recovery?”
64% said less than 6 months
15% said 7 to 12 months
21% said 13 months to over 10 years
The survey did not probe for more information from the 21 percent who said they had from 13 months to over 10 years of recovery. We can speculate that they have had periods of sobriety, that they regard themselves as recovering, yet, at this time, needing treatment to assure on-going recovery.
Forty percent of the participants were women and sixty percent were men. Spirituality is important to 85% of people in treatment
The participants were asked:
“How important is spirituality/faith to your on-going recovery? Please circle one: essential, very important, important, somewhat important or not at all important.”
27% said it was essential
29% said it was very important
16% said it was important
13% said it was somewhat important
15% said it was not at all important
When a person’s use and abuse of alcohol and/or drugs has progressed to the stage that it requires the rigors of treatment, it is a major life crisis threatening health, jobs and family. It is not surprising that most people facing this very difficult situation look to their spirituality/faith as a resource to help them manage the crisis. They are in treatment to get help and most believe their spirituality/faith can also be of help to them.
What is the value of spirituality?
Next we wanted to know why eighty-five percent of people in treatment believe spirituality/faith is important to their recovery. What are the benefits? To get an answer to these questions the people in outpatient treatment were asked:
“If spirituality/faith is part of your recovery, how would you explain it?”
The top three responses to the question were:
“My faith in God gets me through each day.”
“My spirituality/faith helps me have positive relationships with others.”
“My spirituality/faith helps me accept and love myself.”
The survey participants described the benefits of spirituality/faith as practical, useful every day and supportive of their recovery. They were also asked:
“If your spirituality/faith is important in your recovery, does it involve a belief in a ‘higher power’ or God?”
Eighty-one percent, answered, “Yes” to the question.
“Big” and “powerful” spiritual experiences
The spiritual experiences of people in recovery, like the spiritual experiences of all people, vary from the powerful to the gentle. Bill W. described his intense conversion experience with these words:
“In utter despair I cried out, ‘If there be a God, will He show Himself.’ There immediately came to me an illumination of enormous impact and dimension … My release from alcohol obsession was immediate. At once, I knew I was a free man.”
Today, people also report profound and powerful spiritual experiences as they struggle to be free of the servitude addiction demands. When I interviewed Rob, he described his moment of release from drug addiction with the following words:
“When I threw away my last needles, I was sitting alone in my garage. I immediately felt pressure, like air pressure all around me, and then there was a ‘swoosh’ sound like rushing air, like decompression. My body began to feel a huge emotional release. Something left me. I began to cry. I was scared and it occurred to me ‘God must be here’. I cried for a long time and felt indescribably relieved.”
Rob surrendered and experienced the presence of an energy that released him, something he called God. From that moment, more than five years ago, Rob has experienced the freedom of recovery and the joy of sobriety.
“Quiet” and “gentle” spiritual experiences
Most people I interviewed, described their spiritual experience as quiet, gentle and personally supportive. Their connection to the transcendent was most often described as praying, being in nature, meditating and attending recovery groups. The people in treatment described the practical benefits of receiving help to get through the day, of positive relationships with others and a love of oneself.
Jennifer said, “When I was using, I hated God for all the bad things that were happening to me. Of course, I was denying that I was doing those things to myself. I wanted a God who was kind, loving and understanding. I have now found that God in my Christian faith which is key to my ongoing recovery.”
The psychologist William James, in his famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published over a hundred years ago, called the quiet and gentle spiritual experiences the “once born” and the big and powerful experiences, the “twice born.” He actually used the word “solitude” to describe spirituality. He wrote, “Religion …is the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men (sic) in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”
The connection between recovery and spirituality, which began with AA years ago, is not out of date. In fact, matters of the spirit are as important as ever. For some, a spiritual moment becomes a launching pad to a transformed life. For others, spirituality arrives as a gentle reminder of what is truly important. And for many, spirituality may be deeply embedded in a lifestyle and program that provides, not just a spiritual foundation, but also a personal and psychological foundation as well. I learned that the vast majority of people breaking their addictions and creating a life of recovery recognize these connections. Recovering people create powerful relationships and communities of support. Through our transforming struggles we find our connection to each other and to our higher powers.
Allen Nohre is a writer for TERROS. He has held senior management positions with healthcare companies in Minneapolis, Chicago and Phoenix.
TERROS is a healthcare organization providing life solutions for people, families and communities. TERROS offers alcohol, drug, mental health, HIV/AIDS and primary medical services. For assistance call 602-685-6000 or visit www.terros.org