Because of how traditional recovery is structured, many people believe that overcome an addiction is really an exercise in religious conversion. Or at the very least, they believe it be a matter of attaining a certain spiritual experience.
I would agree that this is true for the most part, but of course it all depends on how you define “spiritual experience.” My interpretation of that is much, much more broad than what most people think of when they talk about spirituality.
Perhaps you are stuck because you are not particularly religious, and therefore you are making an excuse for not getting sober because you believe the recovery process to be entirely too spiritual.
Well, I am here to set the record straight and let you know that recovery is more about self discovery and personal growth than it is about religious conversion.
Let’s go through and examine the entire recovery process so that we can see in detail just how much of it hinges on “religiousity.”
Surrender – the start of recovery
My own moment of surrender to addiction could very well have been divinely inspired. I will never know the truth for sure because it just happened one day.
For my entire life and for the last ten years of my addiction, I had been struggling and fighting and trying to walk this thin line. The line is the same line that every struggling addict and alcoholic tries to walk along, it is the line between truly enjoying their buzz while at the same time trying to control themselves. This is the plight of every single addict and alcoholic and really it is in large part what defines addiction itself. The person is compelled to use drugs and alcohol in an extreme way, such that they tend to go way overboard at some point and they find themselves getting into trouble with it. This does not happen every single day of course, but if they keep using their drug of choice then it keeps happening over and over again and thus a trend is developed. Denial can persist for years or even decades because the addict has the illusion that MOST of the time they are in control (because they actually are, for the most part).
Like other struggling addicts and alcoholics, I was engaged in this constant battle of trying to control my drug and alcohol intake. Suddenly, one day, perhaps due to external circumstances (though they were not particularly remarkable) I just dropped this struggle. I let it all go and became willing to ask for help. There was no flash of light, I did not hear a voice compelling me to stop doing drugs, but I did feel a powerful internal shift. The struggle for control fell away from me. This was my moment of surrender. Since then I have not used drugs or alcohol.
Was this a spiritual moment? Was it divinely inspired? I am not going to say that it was not, necessarily. In telling people “how to surrender” I do not have a lot of practical advice, other than to focus on just how miserable their addiction is making them, and to be aware of how much time their drug of choice really does make them happy (hint: it’s not much!).
My surrender may have been a miracle. I cannot really explain it through my own actions. It just happened. That said, the rest of my recovery journey over the next 11+ years as been very deliberate and methodical, as outlined below.
Detoxing and learning how to live sober
For me there are really only two steps in early recovery. Step one, you surrender. Step two, you ask for help. I guess the third part of that sequence might be “you do what people tell you to do.”
This is a process of self discovery if ever there was one. What the addict or alcoholic must do, in essence, is to start over with their life and build a new one from scratch. For me this meant going to rehab, getting detoxed, and then learning a completely new way to deal with things.
My old way was to self medicate at pretty much every chance that I got, for nearly any reason or excuse. Learning a new way to live and to deal with stress required a complete change in lifestyle and a complete shift in attitude and mindset.
Part of the idea in most recovery programs is to shift much of this “dealing with life” onto a spiritual path of sorts. So instead of self medicating with drugs and alcohol, the person is taught to rely on the strength of their higher power in order to deal with the issues that life deals them.
This can and does obviously work for certain people in recovery, but it probably does not work for everyone. Instead, what will work for anyone is the practical side of recovery and growth without the strong religious influence involved.
In some respect this may just be a matter of semantics, and how we define terms such as “spiritual.” But it also probably comes down to a mindset between two ideas that might define a person’s recovery:
1) Relying on a higher power to keep them clean and sober.
2) Relying on themselves and their own journey of personal growth to keep them clean and sober.
Either option can work and you do not have to necessarily have a religious conversion in order to be successful in recovery.
Keep in mind that in traditional recovery circles (meaning 99% of all rehabs, treatment centers, and meetings) you are going to find people who are going to tell you that you DO have to have a spiritual experience in order to remain clean and sober.
The second option of relying on yourself and your journey of personal growth actually IS a spiritual path, but I would not try to convince anyone else of that. It is only in taking this path for yourself can you see how it can be a spiritual path in subtle ways that are difficult to describe. For example, the meditative quality of exercise that almost no one talks about but anyone who exercises certainly benefits from.
Learning how to live sober in early recovery is * traditionally * framed in terms of spiritual experience or even of religious conversion (depending on the recovery program you choose to follow). In my opinion (and experience) you do not have to necessarily focus on spirituality or religion in order to overcome addiction.
The alternative approach is holistic and can be better framed in terms of personal growth.
Indeed, you don’t need meetings, programs, religion, medications, or spiritual conversion. All you need is a personal commitment to recovery and a plan for personal growth.
How to frame the journey of personal growth?
Every person in recovery still has to surrender. There is no getting around this principle or this concept. The epic struggle of every addict or alcoholic has to be extinguished before the person can have any hope for change. Surrender is the decision that abstinence is the right path forward. There is no way around this idea and every addict and alcoholic has to confront the idea of surrender on their own. They must wrestle with the idea that “my life is a mess because of my drug of choice but I do not want to give it up forever.” Once they have overcome this struggle and decided to give their life a try while sober then they have finally surrendered to their addiction.
After this point recovery can take many different forms and many different paths. There are programs of recovery that are based strictly on religion and do not have any mention of 12 step programs. Some people have gone through such programs, become very religious, and managed to stay clean and sober.
There are other programs of recovery that are based on the 12 steps and focus on a spiritual experience rather than on religious conversion. Obviously there have been thousands of people who have gone through such programs and stayed clean and sober. Some argue that even though such programs focus on spirituality in a broad sense that they are actually still somewhat “religious” in nature. This may be somewhat beside the point and in the end we could just end up arguing over what the words really mean.
But there are also programs of recovery that do not rely on religion or spirituality at all. For example there is a recovery program called “Racing for Recovery” that relies entirely on exercise as a method of overcoming addiction. Hundreds of people have followed that program, embraced exercise as their solution, and have many years clean and sober as a result. That such a program exists should be proof enough that something deeper is going on here when it comes to overcoming addiction, something more than just “found God, quit drinking.”
Essentially what happens in recovery is that a person who has been using drugs and alcohol for a long time suddenly decides that they want to try to stop. So they take steps to stop using their drug of choice and maybe they go to treatment and dry out or maybe they just manage to get off the drugs or the booze at home. Either way they eliminate the chemicals and then they are faced with a basic choice.
Now that they are clean and sober, what are the going to do with themselves, and with their life?
This question is at the heart of recovery and if your goal is to explore the possible answers to that question and explore a life of personal growth then you are on the right path.
One popular answer has always been to “find God, discover religion, pursue spirituality,” and so on and so forth. These are all fine answers and they may lead you to a better life in recovery but those are not the only answers (nor are they necessary for success, as traditional recovery makes it out to be).
The alternative answer is to “discover yourself and engage in purposeful, personal, and positive growth for yourself.” You might call this the “humanistic” approach to recovery that is more self reliant and less focused on a higher power.
One interesting thing to note as well is that if you closely examine people who are working a “spiritual” or even a “religious” program of recovery, they will tend to have a lot of the same actions and the same path of personal growth that someone will have who is following this “alternative holistic approach.” In other words, it really is all about personal growth, and that is the big key to success in recovery. People who follow a spiritual and/or a religious path in recovery are just framing their approach to personal growth in a different way. But they still ultimately arrive at the same conclusions and the same outcomes and they still end up pushing themselves to make positive changes in recovery. They just frame those changes in terms of their spiritual experience rather than as holistic growth.
This is not to say that a religious or a spiritual path to recovery is wrong, this is just to point out that it is not the only path, and that ultimately ANY path to a successful recovery is going to ultimately be framed in terms of personal growth. Regardless of whether or not you follow a spiritual program of recovery you are going to have to make positive changes in your life in order to recover. These changes can be expressed in terms of growth. You made a change, it resulted in something positive, that is growth. Whether you did it under the context of religious or spiritual experience is not the critical thing that keeps you clean and sober. What keeps you clean and sober are the positive changes and the growth you experience.
The cumulative nature of recovery and personal growth
The amazing thing about recovery is that your personal growth that you experience is cumulative. Most people who are facing the idea of getting clean and sober are generally pretty miserable and they do not have a lot of hope about their future and they wonder if they will ever be happy again without their drug of choice.
They need not worry because in fact they will be happy again due to this cumulative principle I am discussing here.
What happens when we are living in active addiction is really the opposite of cumulative growth. In active addiction, it is more like “cumulative destruction.” Bad things happen and we self medicate with drugs or alcohol and our life gets progressively worse. Things spiral out of control and the misery and the chaos compounds on itself. This is the cumulative nature of addiction.
Recovery works the same way, and it is all based on personal growth.
The idea is that you make a positive change in recovery, then you “lock in” that positive change.
When you live this way and make deliberate, positive changes, you are creating cumulative recovery and building real momentum.
Personal growth is cumulative.
You start with your baseline of recovery. Total abstinence from alcohol and addictive drugs. Initially you may not be thrilled with this situation because you used to rely on self medicating for your happiness. But that stopped working anyway at some point and you were only left with misery and chaos as a result, so you have nothing to lose really by trying.
So you get clean and sober and you establish this baseline of sobriety. This is your first positive change.
Now every journey in recovery is different so I will just go through my own example of how momentum was built and accumulation occurred.
After establishing this baseline of recovery, this total abstinence, more positive changes were sought out. One of these changes was to explore spirituality, but keep in mind that success in recovery did not hinge on this.
Other positive changes occurred. One was that I started to exercise on a regular basis. I started doing that and established it as a new habit in my life and I never stopped since. I made a positive change and then I locked in the result.
After exercising for a while I noticed that my cigarette habit was in direct opposition to my new healthy exercise habit. So I made a huge effort to quit smoking cigarettes. After much struggle and toil I eventually managed to quit smoking and I locked in this gain as well. Since quitting smoking almost seven years ago I have not had a single puff or any nicotine whatsoever.
After quitting smoking successfully I was sort of struck with the idea that I could probably accomplish pretty much darn near anything I wanted. I believed this to be true based on how ridiculously difficult it was to quit smoking. I said to myself “now I know how to reach a really hard goal. Now I fully understand just how hard you have to try and how dedicated you have to be.”
I had mastered the art of positive change at that point and I felt like I could accomplish nearly anything. So I took a step back and considered my entire life and tried to decide what I really wanted (now that I felt that I knew how to go about getting it).
I decided that I wanted to make a real difference and impact people, but not through my current day job. I was working for an hourly wage at the time and I did not like it. So I decided to start my own business and in doing so I created a platform in which I could connect with thousands of people. So I built this successful business and I used the same level of commitment and dedication that I had used in which to quit smoking.
Looking back, I can clearly see how this was all cumulative growth. I would obviously not have done any of it without first getting clean and sober. The rewards and the benefits of reaching each new goal was all built on meeting my previous goals.
So it was not just that I became clean and sober and then “some good things happened and my life got better.” The process was actually cumulative. I got clean and sober and then my success in recovery started to build on itself. Deliberate growth was made and my life got a whole lot better based on the accumulation of personal growth.
We can easily frame these experiences in a spiritual or religious context but that is not necessary for success in recovery. The growth and the positive changes are what have led me to continuous sobriety.
Keep in mind too that ONE of those positive changes in my life was the exploration of spirituality and a reconnecting with my former faith. However this is not the central focus of my success in recovery and my spiritual experience is not necessarily the driver of positive changes.
What is the driver of positive change? My own journey for holistic health and a better life for myself in recovery.
“The only thing that can overcome addiction is a power greater than yourself”
Many who are in traditional recovery circles (both religious programs as well AA or NA) will argue that no individual is stronger than their addiction, and that the only way to overcome an addiction is by using a power greater than yourself.
What qualifies as “a power greater than yourself?” Does a detox center or a drug rehab qualify?
What about the holistic approach to personal growth? Is that a power greater than yourself?
Or does “a power greater than yourself” really only apply to the traditional/classic image of God as most people understand him?
Before you decide for yourself what you are going to rely on for your own recovery, you might consider what the real driver of change is.
Is it positive changes and personal growth? Or is it a spiritual experience and/or religious conversion?
Do you require religion or a spiritual experience in order to make positive changes in your life?