Doubt a Spiritual Program Works?
I had many preconceived notions about AA, all negative but one: it was free. Unlike rehab, AA wouldn’t make a profit by getting me to buy into a diagnosis of alcoholism. Unfortunately, the only logical explanation for this largess played into my most basic objection, “the God thing.” There had to be a catch and there was. You had to believe in God, and I was convinced, their God. I didn’t want to have anything to do with converting to a new religion. AA’s insistence it was a spiritual program, not a religion, seemed like a distinction without a difference.
In rebutting the religion objection, rehab pointed to AA’s proviso that it was a God “of one’s own understanding.” But that only fueled my doubt. What kind of God is subject to each individual’s understanding? Instead of an all-knowing, all-powerful One who acts according to plans mere mortals can’t hope to comprehend, wouldn’t you get a God defined by the extraordinarily flawed addict mind? To me, it sounded like the metaphysical equivalent of, “Your actual mileage may vary.”
My biggest objection to the God thing, however, was the chasm between claiming addiction was a disease and prescribing a supernatural solution. If I had a disease, why was my only hope a spiritual program? Why wasn’t there a medical intervention? (For more click on Doubt Addiction Is A Disease? I Did.)
Rehab counselors replied a spiritual program worked because it gave addicts a healthy way to deal with emotional problems rather than using drugs to medicate them away. That didn’t necessarily mean you had to believe in God, just a “higher power,” something you acknowledged was stronger than you and you couldn’t control. It was really an exercise in humility: you are not God, the world doesn’t revolve around you, there are many things out of your control, the most immediate of which is alcohol or drugs. Your higher power could be anything bigger than you. (One counselor, a surfer, told me his higher power in early sobriety was the ocean.) You could believe in the 12-Step program, relying on the collective wisdom of AA members. In that case, God could be an acronym for “group of dunks, or ”good orderly direction.” Or you could substitute “love” for God if you preferred.
None of this passed the plausibility test to me. Love as a cure? New-age bullshit if I ever heard any. I wasn’t the only one in my rehab group to object, but I was the most vocal. To my surprise, it didn’t faze anyone. The staff didn’t get defensive, they encouraged us to air what we thought regardless of how dismissive it was of the program.
Incredibly, they said, “Fake it ‘til you make it. We understand your doubts; we shared similar doubts when we were newcomers. But act as if it’s true. Rational objections are irrelevant to an irrational, obsessive dependence. We’ve found a way out. Don’t intellectualize it,” (or in my case over-intellectualize it). Instead of getting hung up on the spirituality part, they told me to focus on the practice. “If you practice our program daily, you can develop a defense to the disease. Suspend your disbelief, act as if it’s true, work through all 12 Steps and someday it will be true: you’ll build a spiritual program that grants you a daily reprieve from the disease.”
I regarded this as the “Music Man” approach. Wasn’t that “Professor” Harold Hill’s con? It wasn’t a way to learn “76 Trombones,” I thought, nor could it help me.
I was wrong. I learned the 12-Step spiritual program can be effective in combating addiction and you don’t have to believe in God (though most will tell you it’s better if you do, if you can truly access God’s love, care and forgiveness). But doubt about “the God thing” isn’t fatal. The components of a spiritual program – treating others as you want to be treated, trying to live honestly, promptly making amends when you inevitably fail, helping others — all work to disarm relapse triggers like anger and resentment. And belonging to a fellowship like AA also brings scientifically provable benefits from social acceptance and group support. It’s not new-age bullshit after all.