If you go to a popular recovery program such as AA, they will tell you that alcoholism is a spiritual malady.
People will describe the phenomenon of having “a great big empty hole in their heart that they tried to fill up with alcohol.” Hence the frame the disease as being a spiritual problem, and one that can be fixed by finding and connecting with a higher power.
This is certainly true for some people, as evidenced by their direct experience in AA (or even in religious based programs). But is it true for everyone?
And is it possible that the word “spiritual” has become meaningless through overuse?
The idea that alcohol problems are a spiritual malady
To some extent I think the debate about spirituality and alcoholism recovery comes down to the words themselves. We have some semantics issues.
For example, what does the term “spiritual” really mean to you?
Does it mean the same thing to someone from a different country, a different background, someone with a completely different upbringing?
I went to an AA meeting once and the guy who was chairing the meeting was obviously someone with a Catholic background. He was talking of “God” and at one point he sort of crossed this imaginary line and suggested that anyone who is in AA for long enough should eventually start going to church at some point.
Another person was in this same AA meeting and they later made a comment in which they said they were slightly offended at this suggestion. Because this second person was of pure Native American descent, and their particular brand of spirituality had nothing at all to do with the Christian faith.
So really when we talk of “a spiritual solution” we have to be a bit careful. Everyone has their own background which is what defines their idea of spirituality. What does the term bring up in your mind? Prayer, meditation, something else entirely?
There is no right answer, but I think there is definitely a danger involved in using the label too freely without really thinking about it.
In my opinion the best approach to alcoholism recovery forgoes the whole “spiritual” approach entirely and replaces it with something much more powerful.
That would be the holistic approach to recovery, which includes the idea of spirituality within it. But it is much more powerful than a one dimensional spiritual approach to recovery.
Why the best approach for an alcohol abuse solution is a holistic approach
No matter what anyone tells you in AA or otherwise, the real truth about recovery is that it is a holistic process.
Think about it. Your alcoholism or drug addiction was not one dimensional. It did not ONLY affect you spiritually, right?
No, your disease affected your life in many different ways.
Sure, there was a spiritual component to it. Every alcoholic has that big hole in their heart that they try to fill up with drugs and alcohol, and it fails. So there is always that spiritual emptiness when they first get clean and sober. This is one piece of the puzzle. This is one part of recovery.
But there are other parts. And some of the other parts are really significant, just like the spiritual malady is significant.
For example, did not your alcoholism affect you physically? Was it not unhealthy from a physical perspective? It certainly was for me. My health was in constant decline while I was drinking. Not only was I basically poisoning my body with booze, but I also did not exercise, had a terrible diet, and got very poor quality of sleep.
Why would you ignore this physical aspect in recovery? Most programs push it to the side in favor of spiritual growth. But in my opinion it is very important to address the physical aspect as well.
The same thing can be said for many other areas of your recovery. Relationships are a huge part of recovery, and traditional programs usually try to address this in some way. But this is separate from spiritual growth (though at some point a lot of this stuff tends to blend together, which goes back to our problem of defining the word “spiritual”).
Do people who are teaching spirituality tell you to exercise every day? Maybe they should. In my experience, they definitely do NOT tell you that. For example, I was in rehab and went to a class on spirituality and they did not mention exercise at all. I have also listened to much advice about spirituality in AA meetings and no one mentioned daily exercise as being vital to spirituality.
It turned out to be one of the most important parts of my recovery. When I exercise every day it is absolutely part of what I would call my “spiritual transformation.”
And yet if you go to an AA meeting and ask them people there to “give you advice on how to be more spiritual,” what do you think they are going to say?
They are going to abuse the word “spiritual.” They don’t know how to define it properly. Their vision is too narrow.
Seriously, go to an AA meeting and ask for this very advice. “How can I be more spiritual in my recovery?”
You will hear things like “read the big book, pray every day, meditate, help others in recovery, go to meetings and share from the heart,” and so on.
What you won’t likely hear are the ideas about a holistic approach. You won’t hear someone talk about how distance running is like a form of meditation to them. And you probably won’t hear anyone say that you need to eliminate toxic relationships from your life, even though that is is one of the most important things that you might do from a “spiritual” standpoint.
The problem is that we all have these preconceived notions of what “spiritual” really means. And those preconceived ideas are generally wrong, or at the very least, quite limited.
Alcoholism as a multi-dimensional problem
Alcoholism is complicated.
People in AA love to argue against this. They want for it to be simple. They want for recovery to be simple so that they can wrap their minds around it. They want for recovery to be simple so that they do not have to think too much or challenge their minds.
Therefore they will say things in meetings such as “It’s real simple, you see, you just work these steps….”
Or they say “AA is a simple program for complicated people.”
Or they will say “We alcoholics like to complicate things unnecessarily.”
I don’t buy any of that.
In my experience, alcoholism is a complicated mess of a disease. It infiltrates every part of our lives. It wrecks havoc on our relationships, on our physical health, on our spiritual life, and so on. It is not a simple disease.
And recovery is not simple either.
Seriously, how can you tell me with a straight face that recovery is simple when you are saying that the solution consists of no less than 12 steps? Really, 12 different steps? That’s a lot!
Twelve steps is pretty darn complicated for an alcoholic who is trying to piece their life back together. That is not simple by any means.
Simple would be to say:
1) Don’t drink no matter what.
2) Improve your life and your life situation every single day through positive action.
That would be simple. Twelve steps is not simple.
Because alcoholism is such a complicated disease, the solution is necessarily complicated as well.
In my opinion that means that the holistic approach is the best way to overcome alcoholism.
We should seek growth in each and every area of our lives. If we limit ourselves to just spirituality then we are missing out on all sorts of important opportunities.
What if alcohol abuse develops into full blown alcoholism? What is the difference?
What is the difference really between alcoholism and alcohol abuse? When is that line crossed?
There is an old saying about it that is paraphrased like this:
Alcohol abuse is when you give someone alcohol and there is a problem.
Alcoholism is when you take the alcohol away and there is a problem.
In other words, the alcoholic has a problem of which alcohol abuse is only a symptom. There is something deeper going on that is driving their problems and the manifestation of getting drunk every day is really just a symptom.
That said, there is another interesting twist to this:
There doesn’t have to be an underlying cause to alcoholism. In fact, there isn’t one. If you are looking for one then you are missing the point.
You see, it used to be the case that people believed alcoholism was a secondary disease, that it was caused by things like “abuse when you were younger” and things like that.
But now we know that this is false. Alcoholism is primary. It is not necessarily caused by anything, and so looking for an underlying cause to treat it largely a waste of time.
You can’t treat alcoholism just by looking at potential “causes” or excuses for why an alcoholic may have drank so much. That is not helpful in recovery. What is helpful is to:
1) Stop drinking.
2) Rebuild your life from the ground up.
3) Use a holistic approach in which you seek to improve your life and your health on several different levels.
It is possible of course that a person is not really addicted, that they are not a “full blown alcoholic.” That they are merely partying it up and engaging in alcohol abuse. If this is the case then much of what I discuss on this website does not really apply.
If you are abusing alcohol and you don’t like where it is leading you, then simply stop drinking. No big deal. There is no problem there. Alcohol abuse can have bad consequences (don’t get me wrong) but if you want to overcome alcohol abuse then there is no trouble at all. Simply stop drinking.
On the other hand, the alcohol abuser may find that they cannot simply stop drinking, even in spite of their consequences. In this case they may need to start looking at the label that they use for themselves, because now they are fitting into the definition of an alcoholic.
An alcoholic is someone who cannot stop drinking even though they want to.
We may even go so far as to say that an alcoholic is someone who cannot stop drinking under their own power without any help at all.
Again, it often comes down to semantics and arguing over the words themselves. What is important is that someone who is struggling with alcohol should go and seek out the help that they need in order to get their life back on track.
How to protect yourself and your life from falling victim to addiction problems
So how can you protect yourself from falling victim to addiction?
In my opinion you are either an alcoholic or you are not. My belief is that you are born that way, not made into an alcoholic. That is just my own opinion though and your experience may be quite different.
If you want to avoid addiction then my advice to you would be not to drink or take addictive drugs. Period. Don’t put them into your body or you will risk becoming addicted to them.
But this is really not very practical advice I don’t think. Why not?
Because life is random. Life is going to lead you to try new things eventually. And maybe it won’t be alcohol or drugs but maybe it will be gambling. Or sex. Or cigarettes. Or food addiction. Or whatever.
And I think it is more important to understand that there is a recovery process out there that can help you to overcome those problems, rather than to simply try to avoid all of those risks.
Everyone is going to be exposed to certain risk factors. Sex, food, painkillers, alcohol. You can’t avoid all of it, all of the time. So eventually you may have to face a problem if you notice that you are getting into trouble. And my answer to any addiction is always going to be the same thing: You need the holistic approach. You need to rebuild your life, to reinvent yourself in recovery in such a way that you no longer depend on your old dependency.
It takes some degree of humility to do this. You have to start from a position of “not knowing.” And that is OK. If you knew what to do then you would not be addicted, right? So you must go through a learning process. That is OK. Give yourself a break. Embrace the learning process.
If I am on a quest right now, it is a journey to define what “spiritual” really is and what it means to sobriety. So far (after 12 years in sobriety) I am starting to believe that you can strip everything away from the arguments (prayer, meditation, etc.) and leave yourself with nothing but gratitude.
Of course you have to have some other elements in place as well. It is always going to be a holistic approach. You can’t just practice gratitude while dumping vodka down your throat every day and expect to transform your life. It requires a holistic approach.
So you start with the physical. You go to detox. You stop drinking, physically. You dry out in rehab. And you start going to groups, and maybe they expose you to AA meetings, or whatever. Maybe you go to a different rehab that has religious based recovery programs. Whatever the case may be, you are really there to dry out, to kick start your new life. If you are learning anything then you haven’t really “learned” it until you get out in the real world and apply it in your life.
Recovery is a battle of momentum. You are moving uphill, trying to improve your life. Quitting drinking was really just one obvious factor in this journey, but there are other factors. So you work on your emotional balance. You strive to improve your relationships. You try to improve your physical health. You seek to sharpen your mind, to generate new ideas.
And from a spiritual standpoint, you learn how to be grateful.
Sure, there are other distractions that might occupy your spiritual efforts. But all of it points back to your attitude, to your perception of life and how to handle everyday situations.
Are you grateful to be alive? Are you grateful to have another chance at life? If so, then you have “arrived” as much as anyone else in the world of spiritual recovery can arrive.
If you have real gratitude in your life then you have power. You have power to face the chaos of the day without becoming discouraged. You have the power to turn a negative situation into a learning experience. You have the ability to stay motivated and strong when things might not go so perfectly.
Without gratitude, what have you got? What good is your faith if you do not appreciate the fact of your existence? What good is hope if you could care less about the future? What good is a higher power if you are not going to use that power to do anything positive in the world?
What good is recovery if you don’t care about anyone or anything?
Gratitude is the secret sauce that makes any spiritual effort worthwhile. Gratitude is how you weather the storm and get through the inevitable dips that you will go through in life.
Gratitude is perhaps your most powerful form of relapse prevention. No one who relapses on alcohol does so while they are truly grateful. They only relapse when they have run out of gratitude, or forgotten how to practice it.
In this sense, alcoholism and drug addiction are definitely a “spiritual” disease. The person who seeks to self medicate has lost all sense of wonderment. They are not grateful for existence, in fact they are sick of existence and they are trying to escape from reality.
The solution in recovery is a holistic approach. You must seek to improve your life and your life situation.
Ask yourself: “How hard is it for me to be grateful today?”
Now realize that your daily efforts can make this easier in the future.
One, you should practice gratitude every single day. Force yourself to be grateful, to “fake it until you make it.” Write out gratitude lists every day, if nothing else. EVERY DAY.
Two, you should work to improve your life, and your life situation. This goes back to the holistic approach. You become what you do every day. So adopt healthy habits and start transforming your life.
After several years of hard work (on improving yourself) it becomes a lot easier to be grateful. It also becomes much easier after you have been practicing gratitude all along.
To sum up:
1) Don’t drink no matter what.
2) Use a holistic approach to recovery. Seek to improve your health and your life in all areas. Don’t limit yourself to just the spiritual.
3) Focus on gratitude and practice it every single day. This should become 90 percent of more of your spiritual efforts.
What do you think, is alcoholism a spiritual disease, or more of a holistic one? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!