When we’re first exposed to 12-step recovery, it’s common to wonder what spirituality has to do with it: after all, our problem was that we were drinking and using too much, right? Correct … except the solution isn’t quite as straightforward as many of us would have hoped. Turns out, most of us were struggling with emotional dilemmas that were conveniently covered up with a few drinks or some drug use.
We often say in recovery: “The problems are emotional, the answers are spiritual.” Therefore, spirituality and addiction recovery are intertwined – spiritual tools provide the necessary solutions we seek.
In active addiction, we were doing everything on our own. Even in a crowded room, we were alone! We didn’t ask for help, we felt we didn’t want help, and we tried our best to “think” our way out of any conundrums we found ourselves in. In recovery, we must turn this on its head: at the core of recovery is the philosophy that we can’t do it alone. This is the spiritual solution that we must adopt in order to make it through early recovery and beyond: we ask for and accept help from sponsors, friends in recovery, and a higher power of our choosing. These are the spiritual tools.
Using spiritual tools to respond to emotional struggles in recovery
Alcoholism and drug addiction are rooted in our own inability to properly process emotions. This is not a “dig” on anyone who gets high; it’s just an acknowledgment that we are the types of people who felt so defeated by our emotional problems that we felt the continual consequences of self-destructive drug use was worth it, because it was the only solution that actually “worked.”
After the pink cloud syndrome wears off, we suddenly find we are faced with all the same emotional struggles we had all along. People suffering from this disease are often misunderstood because they struggle to communicate and accept feedback or help from others.
If a recovering alcoholic isn’t taught how to appropriately manage her emotions or given better tools to express herself, she will be seen as having unsolvable problems. In a recent conversation with a person in recovery, I was able to point out some very simple facts.
This person shared that she walks around with a feeling of anxiety in the pit of her stomach most of the time. As we spoke about this feeling more, she recognized that when she experienced major changes in her life the feeling was more pronounced.
Sometimes she is aware of obvious changes taking place: getting married, becoming pregnant, changing jobs, or moving. Sometimes she doesn’t see the transformation until much later. Either way, what she wants when experiencing these emotions is understanding, validation, and (most importantly) love. She walks around with the unrealistic expectation that if she feels a certain way, something must be wrong. I compared this to recovery from alcoholism. I asked her a series of questions:
Do you believe you are an alcoholic? She responded, “Yes.”
Do you think this is a permanent condition? “Yes, of course it is. I cannot imagine ever being able to drink normally.”
Every once and a while are your alcoholic thoughts or fantasies more difficult to deal with than at other times? She answered, “Of course.”
So there are times that you are more drawn to alcohol, that the lifestyle seems more attractive, that you just want to get into trouble, or drown your sorrows or celebrate your successes with a drink? “Yes.”
Can you always pinpoint why you are thinking this way? “No, sometimes it just pops up for no reason.”
But this doesn’t scare you because you know how to deal with your alcoholism, right? “Exactly. If my head is running I know exactly what to do. Call someone, go to a meeting, write, pray or all of the above!”
Would you agree that these are spiritual tools? “Yes. God as I understand Him can restore me to sanity every time.”
Since you found these solutions to your alcoholism, have they ever failed? “No, never.”
Why do you see your other emotional problems as being significantly different? Why do you think that if you ever feel anxiety it must be because of something you are doing wrong? “I don’t know, I guess I have always believed that if I have intense fear or anxiety, there must be something wrong with me.”
If you have thoughts about wanting to drink does that guarantee that you will get drunk? “No, that’s ridiculous.”
Does it mean that you are doing something wrong? “Not necessarily. If I am not taking care of myself, my alcoholic thoughts will be stronger but sometimes the thoughts just come up.”
So if you have some simple tools to deal with alcoholism that you know work and you realize that your alcoholism will probably always be with you, why wouldn’t the same tools work with your anxiety?
Spiritual tools that work
My point is that spiritual tools will work. In this simple conversation, this person was able to clearly see that the feeling in the pit of her stomach does not indicate that she is somehow broken. She recognizes that this may be something that surfaces from time to time, and has begun to return to gratitude.
But if she can distinguish between the feeling and the reality, she will find peace of mind. The feeling may be attached to nothing. It may be because of a significant event. Either way, if she can talk about it, pray about it, and go about her business, she will be able to let it go.
Not only that, she will be able to provide validation to others who may feel crazy. The more people are convinced that thoughts or feelings of discomfort indicate that they are somehow flawed, the more hopeless our world will become. Most of what every person works through on an emotional level has been an issue for many years. That is not the problem. The problem is when we don’t have solutions that allow for real change.
Regardless of whether we’re sobering up in treatment programs or we simply walked into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting off the street, substance use disorders are often a manifestation of a pattern of being spiritually cut off from others, regardless of any other spiritual beliefs you may have. This is why the 12th step begins, …”having had a spiritual awakening.”
Our willingness to incorporate spiritual tools into our recovery is very tied to our sense of purpose in life as we stay sober and continue to grow.