Chemical dependency has long been a misunderstood and harshly judged condition. Alcoholics have been stereotyped as down in the gutter, wino’s who have nothing, nobody and no place to go. They are thought to be the homeless and seedy of our society. Recovering alcoholics know these accusations to be untrue. Walk into any Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and you will find doctors, lawyers, accountants, mechanics, housewives, students, or any number of career paths and personalities. These are not the rooms of the degenerate. In the Dr’s opinion, (AA Big Book, 2001): “Then there are types entirely normal in every respect except in the effect alcohol has upon them. They are often able, intelligent, friendly people.” (pg. xxx). These are the rooms of the individuals, who, like Bill, (AA Big Book, 2001) thought they were destined for death or insanity. There was no hope. They had a moral disease that consumed them. They had not the willpower to beat it. It couldn’t be done. Then, they discovered the AA way. They worked the twelve steps after finding a Power greater than themselves. The AA Big Book (2001) recounts several stories of how this God of their own understanding could restore them to sanity. Bill, one of the co-founders of AA states (AA Big Book, 2001), “…I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch. I have not had a drink since.” (pg. 13). Steps one through three of the program tell you God can if you let Him, then the rest of the steps help you “clean house” in order to serve others with God’s help. Serving others is what most people feel keeps them sober (Larsen, 2007). Faith put into action. Essence first, action follows (Larsen, 2007). Thousands of individuals who have found their Higher Power are the testament to the Power of spirituality in recovery (AA Big Book, 2001). This report will show that people are more likely to maintain sobriety when spirituality is the foundation of their program of recovery.
Weil (2004) defines alcoholism as a person’s habitual and excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages, involving many unsuccessful attempts to stop. It describes their continued drinking despite adverse consequences to health, responsibilities, and personal values.He sums it up by saying it is not a psychological or pharmacological problem. He believes it cannot be solved with psychology or the use of pharmaceuticals. Its root is a spiritual concern. It is the misdirected attempt to achieve wholeness, inner completeness and personal satisfaction.
Alcoholics Anonymous (2001) states:
“But what about the real alcoholic? He may start off as a moderate drinker; he may or may not become a continuous hard drinker; but at some stage of his drinking career he begins to lose all control of his liquor consumption, once he starts to drink. Here is the fellow who has been puzzling you, especially in his lack of control.” (pg. 21).
AA is founded on spirituality. Spirituality is different from religion. Religion is based on a specific organized faith. Brown, et al, (2006), Collins (2006), Okundaye, et al (2001), Larsen (2007), and Kurtz & Ketcham (2002) all agree that spirituality has a broader belief base pertaining to higher purpose, meaning and value. Trustful prayer and meditation to a guiding higher power plus connection to others who have the same beliefs is fundamental to twelve step programs. Most individuals need help developing these behaviors to participate fully in the program. Okendaye, et al (2001) liken the “coming to believe” to a journey. Not all those in recovery come by it quickly. “Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly”, the alcoholic forms this spirituality (AA, 2001). Covington (1994) and Collins (2006) state that religion, without true spirituality, is about beliefs, structure and rules. It often involves adopting someone else’s idea of spirituality. Covington (1994) states that many women have said they would not know spirituality if it weren’t for their addictions.
The AA big book (2001), states the twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is necessary, in fact, vital, to recovery from alcoholism. They go on to say that they found they could not manage their own lives; no human power could relieve their alcoholism. “God could, and would if He were sought” (pg. 60). That takes you through step 3. The following nine steps lead the alcoholic through “cleaning house” with identifying character defects, humbly asking God to remove them, making amends to those offended by the alcoholic, and asking God to continue working in our lives. Then, the alcoholic seeks to maintain sobriety by passing these messages onto others in need of sobriety. The program’s components of fellowship and storytelling, with guidance from the 12 step process and the key element of spirituality are the key ingredients that make the program a success. (Green, et al, 1998)
Brown, et al (2007) conducted a study of using spiritual intervention in a seven week project titled “Knowing Your Higher Power.” They found that the individuals who were part of the program had a much higher incidence of maintaining sobriety than those who were not included. This behavioral study was applied along with the twelve step program and then followed up after 12-weeks to assess the longevity. It led the authors to believe clinicians should apply these behavioral concepts in treatment.
Green, et al (1998) observed AA and NA groups during fellowship and also in the halls and interactions at the clinic. Spirituality was a primary focus of the witnessing that occurred with AA/NA participants. It was noted that those who had not come to believe in a power greater than themselves did not have as much success with sobriety. Group members pointed out to these individuals that incidents were not co-incidences. More often than not, they were God’s way of sending a message. Some new-comers to the program could not relinquish his or her own will and accept that a spiritual being was more powerful. Fellow AA’ers saw the reluctance toward spiritual principals as a block to recovery success. The AA Big Book (2001) refers to “stinkin’ thinkin’”; this terminology is known in the rooms of AA as what led to the members’ issues with chemical use and what kept them from being freed from its power. This, in turn, kept the addict apart from God and others, including the addict him/herself (DiLorenzo, et al, 2001). Non-recovering alcoholics or active addicts are said to have negative spirituality and strive for the positive through chemical use (Warfield and Goldstein, 1996).
When we look at controlled vs. uncontrolled drinking, we can go to the AA Big Book (2001) which states, “We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking.” “All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals—usually brief—were inevitably followed by still less control.” (pg. 30).
Most alcoholics felt they were the exception to the rule; they could control this and they denied the disease had taken that control from them. Inevitably, the chemical use got worse and worse. One drink and they were sunk. Stopping after one as many people are able to do was not within the grasp of the alcoholic, as hard as he tried.
Instead of quitting, the addict starts to bargain. As the Big Book (2001) states, he tries switching to beer or wine, only drinks on the weekend or at special occasions. He deludes himself into thinking he can manage. It’s the fault of others that his life is in shambles. He is not the reason things have gotten so out of control.
Eventually, the disease proves too powerful to ignore. Addicts say the moment they realized their lives had become unmanageable was when they “hit bottom” (Kurtz & Ketcham,1992). Everyone’s bottom is different but what is similar is it is a turning point. The admission is made of being powerless over alcohol or drugs or whatever the source of their addiction is; at that point, a willingness to accept the need for a power greater than oneself is needed to overcome what seems hopeless. The AA Big Book (2001), outlines the steps in which this acceptance takes place. “I can’t”, “God can”, “if I let Him” sum up steps one through three and often the new comer to recovery is told to come back to these three steps often throughout recovery. They truly form the base of recovery.
A surrender of one’s will to the God of their understanding is sometimes a long process. Okundaye, et al, (2001), state that many treatment programs don’t emphasize the spiritual side of recovery enough. They outline the strength’s perspective and how enabling the recovering alcoholic should include helping them gain spirituality. As outlined earlier, many individuals early in the recovery process struggle with “letting go” and “letting God” (AA, 2001). Okundaye, et al (2001) discuss six strengths concepts including empowerment, suspension of disbelief, dialogue and collaboration; membership; synergy, and regeneration. They state that the spiritual disease of addiction has led to separateness, emptiness, meaninglessness, and a lack of purpose in one’s life. The result is moral compromise leading to decreased self-esteem and a lack of self-worth. They propose that using a holistic approach, the addict can address coping patterns, interpersonal perceptions, and social environments. Painful experiences have led to growth and the desire to change. By empowering and stressing a client’s potential, clinicians can help clients overcome stigmas and break patterns learned in dysfunctional atmospheres. By walking with the client through the process of learning spirituality, we are able to help them steer an otherwise rudderless ship. Ethically, helping professionals can, and should, encourage spirituality. Especially since spirituality is a personal understanding, clinicians can help individuals find their own perception of a Higher Power.
Larsen (2007), Dayton (2007), and Kurtz & Ketchum (1992), all point to the brain’s role in chemical dependency, a disease of mind, body and spirit. Many individuals with chemical dependency “come by it honestly”. Growing up in families with generations of addiction has caused the “tree to become bent” (Larsen, 2007). Larsen (2007) also points out that we all have a core need for love. We strive for that fulfillment. We grow in the direction we are nurtured. We begin our using habits based on what we’ve learned or by what we feel we need to put a band aide on our emotions and the quest for love. Our limbic brains control our emotions and survival mechanisms. These are the primitive parts of our neurological system (Dayton, 2007). Just as the body needs food and water to sustain itself, the body that uses chemicals begins to think that’s what it needs to survive. The dependence occurs when the brain starts to crave the substance more than the food and water. Support of the habit is what drives the dependent individual. Even when the addict/alcoholic quits drinking, the need continues. Abstinence is the key to keeping the lion asleep; that lion continues to grow even though the person in recovery does not feed it. Awaken it, and it is mightier than ever (personal communication with AA groups).
The AA Big Book (2001) tells us that when the addict is successfully in recovery, he learns what is needed to reconcile the emotions that once pushed him to put the band aide on. Through the twelve step process, he recognizes his character defects with the help of his Higher Power who is then humbly asked to remove them. This healing occurs through a process of self-forgiveness and seeking forgiveness from those harmed through the addiction’s downward spiral.
Once the “junk” is removed, the individual has room to be filled with the spirit. It is a “hoop” (Larsen, 2007) in that it comes full circle: By asking a God of our understanding to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, achieve abstinence, we are able to use that power to make more room for Him to be part of our lives. By reconciling our conflicting emotions, we are able to return to functionality.
Participation in AA is part of the reconciliation process. A unique combination of storytelling, group support, responsibility to a membership and one another sets the healing in motion (AA Big Book, 2001). Green, et al, (1998) speak of the stories of humiliation, loss and abuse shared at meetings and between recovering chemically dependents. Although they have histories that would make the strongest weak, they express a depth of gratitude for the changes in their lives. They acknowledge how this Power outside of themselves has restored them to sanity and provided them with the resources they needed to become sober. The addicts may have been loners in the past, preferring solitude to the company of others. They may have spent time as children buried in books instead of outside playing with other children. They may have endured high school without lots of dates. They may now feel more comfortable with people in one on one rather than in large groups. A meeting is an ideal place to learn how to interact with others. They don’t have to act a certain way or hide feelings because the group will understand them no matter what. They can give as much as they choose and trust that the group will neither harm nor ask for more.
Warfield and Goldstein (1996), explain that groups exist because people are working together in unison. Someone “opens up,” others make coffee, one chairs and another speaks; some will clean up at the end. The strength of the group lies in the ability of each member to do what is comfortable for him or her. Such coexistence helps one learn that strength is gathered from numbers. The sharing of strength, hope and gratitude reinforces that strength.
Warfield and Goldstein (1996) go on to say that sponsorship is a key ingredient in the process, another support gathered for the sponsor as well as the sponsee. Mutual responsibility supports the relationship; learning to have strong relationships is the benefit to all. An addict’s ability to form and keep relationships has been damaged through his addiction. These helping bonds form out of a sense of “we’re in this together”, “been there, done that”, “ I have walked a mile in your shoes and know where you’re coming from.” Because a person has filled him/herself with the spirit, he/she is not doing this on his/her own. Group members tend to believe that God puts people in their lives to send His message. Circumstances have a purpose and how the recovering addict responds is a gift and comes from learning humility from the God of their understanding. These individuals come to have a spiritual desire to be in touch, to be involved with what is good. Perfection is not the goal; a healthy individual comes of a program that facilitates personality growth and separation of oneself from a narcissistic ego. Through these healing encounters with a Power greater than oneself and the other members of AA/NA, and new community supports, the person in recovery learns to love themselves. They realize that they are lovable and deserve the unconditional love of another. These things no longer are withheld from them. This in itself is empowering, fosters belief, promotes self-worth and creates a sense of well being.
“One day at a time” is a slogan well used in AA circles (AA Big Book, 2001) The Big Book (2001) recounts the stories of several founders of the program and the acceptance of a God of one’s understanding has helped millions of people. By taking life on life’s terms, knowing that all you have to do is “show up” (Larsen, 2007), and God will take care of the rest if you let Him, many recovering addict/alcoholics have found the ability to maintain abstinence. Through personal communication with this author, one AA member, Jim, states he partakes of daily inspirational readings to help him on his journey. He goes on to say:
We are in a simple program described in thousands of ways. Sadly, or fortunately, what we describe cannot be explained. An emotion is not a thought. Emotions are our internal compass. The gift of our addiction is that it brings us to a simple instructional outline to follow which changes our self-made “hell on earth” [into] a virtual heaven on earth. The simple instructional program, when followed as a way of life, yields a solid connection between our emotional self and our thinking self. The result is euphoric if the connection is perfect. Morning meditations serve as anchors to our emotional reality as our thinking self has been running loose during our sleep. Simple. Each of us emotionally interprets words differently at various times. Therefore, it is helpful to have the simplicity communicated to us in thousands of ways. One of the ways will be more easily understood at a moment in time than another.
Jim’s eloquent statements echo the thoughts of many in the rooms of AA. They speak of the strength found in the spirituality of the program. Daily meetings with the God of their understanding, keeps them on the path to recovery. Attendance at meetings reinforces this relationship, and the stories of their fellows reinforces that they are indeed commencing on the journey of a healthy lifetime.
Serenity is the ultimate reward for following the road to recovery. Many new members of AA have been heard saying, “I want what they have.” The truly recovering person with chemical dependency has an air of peace about them. They have made peace with themselves, their God, and their fellows. They use the serenity prayer as a guide:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” (Covington, 1994, pg. 114).
Relapse happens to the best of those in recovery. When a person has truly found the God of their understanding, they know the way back. The unconditional love of that God and their friends in the program are a beacon that leads them back into the light. If the program is followed to the best of their ability, the promises will come true (AA Big Book, 2001):
If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will chang. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them (pg. 83 – 84).