Is Alcohol Treatment Just Replacing Your Addiction with Religion?

Is Alcohol Treatment Just Replacing Your Addiction with Religion?

alcohol treatment replaced with religion?

You could be forgiven if you believed that everyone in recovery had simply switched their addiction.

Instead of drinking every day at the corner bar, the recovering alcoholic is now addicted to spiritual progress. They seek spirituality based on fellowship and through “working the steps” rather than trying to find meaning at the bottom of a bottle.

That can’t possibly be a bad thing, can it?

Anything is better than staying stuck in active addiction, right?

In my opinion, nearly anything is better than active addiction (except for suicide, that is always worse than addiction).

Therefore if you can “switch” one addiction for another in the form of spiritual pursuit then this is certainly better than staying stuck in your alcoholism.

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There are many people who would like to know exactly how to go about living a spiritual life in recovery but they don’t have the first clue as to how to transition into it.

I will give you a hint: You cannot just decide to become more spiritual on a mere whim. It isn’t just going to happen if you have a passing fancy one day while you are drunk (or even sober).

Instead, the path to spiritual development is going to come out of crisis. In other words, you have to hit bottom first. You have to go through some intense pain and misery if you want to become a seeker of the truth and find meaning and purpose in the spiritual quest. You can’t just casually pick up on the idea of spirituality and turn it into a driving force in your life. If it is to become a powerful force for you then you have to dive into it head first.

We alcoholics and drug addicts tend to be people of extremes. That is part of our problem. We don’t know how to moderate. We go to extremes with our addiction and that is what got us into trouble in the first place.

So a lot of us in recovery tend to do the same thing with the recovery solution, which I see as being totally necessary. You cannot grasp recovery unless you have the same passion for it that you once had for drinking and using drugs. In other words, you can’t just casually wander into recovery and accidentally become sober. You are either committed to it, or you are not. There is no in between. Recovery is entirely pass/fail.

This is why many people who find the spiritual program of recovery end up going hog wild with it eventually. They don’t have a choice. If they want to remain sober then they have to dedicate themselves to something else, something other than alcohol and drugs.

The replacement theory of addiction treatment

It is my belief that you can replace a drug or alcohol addition with several different things.

One thing that you can do is to basically find religion. Now I realize that spirituality and religion are two different things, but I also have come to realize that if you stick with the AA culture for long enough that they have their own sort of psuedo-religion that revolves around spirituality. I realize that there is still plenty of freedom in AA when it comes to the spiritual aspect but there is, on the other hand, a sort of collective set of beliefs that comes through in most AA meetings that helps to define this psuedo-religion.

Many people have argued that AA is not a religion, then others have argued back that it functions as a religion of sorts, and so on. The point I would try to make here is that the exact label doesn’t really matter, what matters most is if people can use AA and the brand of spirituality that you can build in AA to help you to stay sober. And I think the answer to that is definitely “yes.” I don’t think there is much to be gained by denying that AA shares some traits with many religions. On the other hand, I don’t think the label itself is very important. If the program helps someone then they should be free to pursue it, but they should also be free to walk away from AA if they don’t “fit” into the mold. I eventually decided that I was not a good fit for the program and so I went my own way instead.

Since that time I have looked closely at what makes sobriety work for people. Not just for myself but for other people in recovery around the world. There are many examples of people who are doing unique things in order to maintain sobriety.

For example there are people who stay clean and sober based on physical exercise programs. This is the central thrust of their recovery effort–they work out. Apparently it is enough to keep them clean and sober. Some of them have been doing this for years or even decades. They don’t go to meetings, they don’t read recovery literature, they don’t pursue “spirituality” in any real way. And yet they have found a path that works for them.

The question is: Are these people just replacing an addiction to alcohol with an addiction to exercise?

And then a follow up question to that might be: “If so, does it really matter? Is that a bad thing?”

This idea definitely exists, that you can replace your alcoholism with an “addiction” to something more positive. The question therefore becomes: Is that a good thing or a bad thing, and should you find a different or better way?

In order to answer those questions you would have to accurately measure your results.

Now this becomes tricky because of our good old friend:


It is possible, for example, for an alcoholic to switch addictions and put down the alcohol in favor of something like, say, marijuana. They have a term for this in recovery and it is “the marijuana maintenance program.” You are simply switching one drug out (alcohol) for another drug (marijuana). Yes, alcohol is a drug. So in effect you are just switching from one to another.

Does it work?

Of course not. The running joke in traditional recovery is in calling it the “marijuana maintenance program,” and we all know that it is a futile effort. It always leads the person back to their real drug of choice. You cannot successfully switch from one drug to another in order to overcome your addiction. It will never work. Many have tried this and all have failed. In the end, a drug is a drug is a drug.

Given that, is it really a wise idea to switch from one addiction (drugs or alcohol) to another form of “addiction” like religion, exercise, or personal growth?

I think the answer is clearly “yes,” you need to find something else that works in your life. Something other than the drugs and the booze.

If you have to get fanatical about exercise in order to do it, then so be it. This is way better than a slow suicide with alcohol.

If you have to get fanatical about spirituality and/or religious pursuits, then so be it. This is still way better than the alternative.

If you get fanatical about personal growth, then guess what? Your life gets better and better over time as you push yourself to improve your life and your life situation. If this is a form of addiction, then bring it on. You can do much worse.

So even though an argument can be made that you are “switching from one addiction to another” when you take on a recovery program, I believe that you should ignore such criticism. Base your analysis strictly on results. This is how you will overcome denial anyway. You have to be honest.

In other words, if you stop drinking and start smoking marijuana every day as a solution, then you have to be honest with yourself. If you stay in denial then you might tell yourself for a really long time that everything is going good, that you are really happy, and that smoking weed every day is not producing any ill effects in your life. This is your denial talking of course. You are trying to convince yourself that things are much better even though you are still self medicating with a drug.

So a point will come (hopefully) where you break through your denial and realize that you are not any happier smoking weed every day as opposed to using alcohol. And you will also probably reach a point where you say “screw it” and simply relapse back to the alcohol anyway. It just won’t work. And if you try to convince yourself that it is working, then you are likely in denial.

The same thing is true with a less extreme example, such as using the AA program or an exercise based program of recovery. Maybe it is working for you and maybe it is not. But ultimately what matters is the long term results and if you are truly happy with your life or not. If you are not happy then you need to get honest enough with yourself to break through your denial. If you are stuck in denial then you are telling yourself that “I am basically happy” and “everything is fine” when in fact it is not the case.

The only way to overcome that denial is to see the truth, and to get honest with yourself about the truth.

If you need help doing that then I would recommend that you start by keeping a journal every day. Write down how you feel, write about your happiness, write down if you are happy or not each day. Over time this will reveal your denial, simply by writing it down each day. Don’t lie to yourself. Put the truth down on paper and it will force your brain to realize if you are living a lie or not.

Your recovery philosophy may evolve over time (as mine did)

Before I got clean and sober I used to wonder to myself: “Can a person choose to have a spiritual experience?

There is still no clear answer to this, though I would say that I lean towards “no, they can’t just choose it.”

The reason for this has to do with surrender and breaking through your denial. If you have not yet hit bottom then how can you choose to have this spiritual experience? You can say the words and try to believe them but in your heart you will not really transform unless you are already at your bottom.

You can try to get your brain to do tricks (transform spiritually) but the heart knows. If you have not surrendered then it will not really work.

I hit bottom in my own recovery journey and so I went to rehab to get help. There I was introduced to 12 step based recovery and so I started going to meetings every day.

I lived in long term rehab for 20 months. But after I reached the 18 month point in my sobriety I started to find a different path in recovery.

I was not going to depend on meetings for the rest of my life. I was finding another way to stay sober. I was deconstructing sobriety and figuring out what I had to do in order to maintain recovery for my own self.

I was not really interested in sitting in meetings every day. That was not my idea of successful recovery.

And I was suspicious of the mixed message that I was getting in traditional AA meetings. They told me that “the solution was in the steps.” But on the other hand, they seem to be telling me that if I stopped going to daily AA meetings that I would probably relapse.

So which was it? Is the solution really in the steps, or is the solution to go to meetings every day?

Of course some would answer “both. Just do both. Duh.”

Not good enough. I wanted to know exactly how recovery worked so that I could be more efficient and not waste so much time and effort. Because if you take every single suggestion that you get in early recovery then there is really not enough time in the day to do it all. Recovery programs are sort of a mixed bag of suggestions, and it can get overwhelming at times.

So after leaving the AA meetings I discovered the real truth about alcoholism recovery. I discovered that it was not dependent on daily meetings, nor was it necessarily dependent on 12 specific steps that someone had written down at one time.

The real truth was that my recovery was dependent on personal growth. This is what I learned after “deconstructing sobriety.” I watched people who were successful in staying clean and sober. Then I went to find other recovery programs and I found the successful examples from those programs as well. In other words, I looked beyond AA. I looked the exercise people. I looked at the people who just went to counseling or therapy. And I looked at the people who went to churches or religions to see what was keeping them sober.

And so what you discover if you really open your mind to all of this stuff is that there is more than one path to sobriety. And there are people out there who are doing some very different things in order to recover from alcoholism.

The tragic thing is that there is a ton of self selecting bias in recovery and it can be very destructive. In other words, if you go to several AA meetings and ask if this is the only way to truly recover from alcoholism, you will hear an overwhelming “yes” from the people there. Sure you can probably find a few counter examples but the vast majority of people in a recovery program suffer from self selecting bias. They are all sober and they go to meetings each day so therefore they believe that to be the one true solution. They have blinders on to the idea that someone could find another successful path in recovery.

At some point you may be involved in replacing your addiction with something else, and that is OK. If it works for you at the time then you should definitely do it. Nearly anything is better than addiction. But you should also stay open to the idea that you may evolve and change in your recovery. Don’t be afraid of such change. If you are afraid of such change (such as the urge to leave daily meetings, for example) then make sure you channel that fear into positive action. This is what I did when I finally left the daily meetings myself, I turned that fear into positive action so that I could prevent relapse in my own way.

I essentially said to myself: “If I am not going to go to AA meetings every day, then I am going to make sure that I push myself to take positive action in some other way.” Thus I wanted to keep growing and moving forward even if I was not going to be using a formal plan of recovery any more. This worked for me.

What are the alternatives to a replacement strategy for treatment?

The main alternative that I can see is the idea of “personal growth.”

This is another label. We can also think of it (if you like) as being another addiction. As in: “You have replaced your addiction to alcohol with a new addiction to personal growth!”

If that is the case then I will gladly accept the label of “addicted to personal growth.”

It is the same measuring stick that you should use in AA, or in any recovery program. If it is working for you and you are genuinely happy with your life, then by all means, keep doing it.

The label of “personal growth” is pretty generic.

To me, personal growth is:

1) Improving your health in various ways. Holistic health. So taking care of yourself physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, socially, etc. Not neglecting any one area of your overall health. Using a holistic approach towards your health. Prioritizing your health first and foremost as being really important to you.

2) Striving to improve your life. As in, the stuff that goes on inside of your mind every day. Eliminating fear, guilt, shame, anger, and self pity. Working hard on this. Finding other people to help you with this if you get stuck.

3) Striving to improve your life situation. As in, the external stuff in your life. Stuff like your job, your career, your relationships with others, and so on. Pushing yourself to always be improving these situations and moving forward.

Try anything to break through your denial and get the help that you need

If you are still self medicating with drugs or alcohol, then you just need to take action.

Don’t worry if a replacement strategy is “right” for you or not. Just do it. Try it anyway. If it is not perfect then you can adjust and adapt later on as you go along.

I started in AA but I eventually found my own path elsewhere. And that is OK. You can evolve in your recovery journey as you remain clean and sober.

The important thing when you are stuck in denial is to get honest with yourself. Keep pushing yourself to get honest to the point where you finally take action and ask for help. From there you life can only get better and better.

What about you, do you believe that using a recovery program is just switching addictions? Is that even a bad thing? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!

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