A Spiritual Program
For about the first ten days at rehab I rejected the 12-Step spiritual solution because of “the God thing.” My biggest objection 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.) I also didn’t believe a spiritual practice could retrain my mind enough to sidestep the self-destructive thinking that led to my constant drinking.
Rehab had a very practical answer to my question about why addiction required a spiritual, rather than a medical, solution. “It works,” they said. “The evidence can be found in every AA meeting room.” They insisted that my sobriety, and therefore my life, depended on my spiritual condition, succinctly summed up in the direction I was given: “If you don’t have a Higher Power, get one.”
Prayer and meditation were key components. Prayer, they said, was simply talking to your Higher Power with complete honestly. They asked, “How can you lie to God?” and answered, “You can’t, and that’s a prerequisite for learning not to lie to people.” Meditation was the flip side of prayer. It’s listening to your Higher Power and learning to trust what you hear.
I wasn’t exactly receptive to this message, particularly early on. I couldn’t see how a spiritual practice worked to cure a brain disease. Rehab counselors countered that 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, they said, just a “Higher Power,” something you acknowledged was more powerful than you were. (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, we could use the word “God” as an acronym for taking “good orderly direction” from experienced AA members. Alternatively, they suggested “group of drunks,” who know a hell of a lot about how to keep from drinking. You could believe in anything that demonstrated the proper perspective: recognizing the difference between the things we can control and the things we can’t, that we are not life’s directors. We had to acknowledge there’s a lot we can’t control and learn not to trip over that, not to use alcohol and drugs to make us feel more powerful than we really were. Addiction is one of the things we can’t control, they instructed, which is why we need the help of others. A spiritual program, I was told, provides the proper perspective.
Initially didn’t have the slightest idea what they meant about maintaining a good spiritual condition and said so. They answered, “It means living the golden rule every moment.”
At one of my earliest AA meetings, I heard a speaker use driving in traffic as an example of what it entailed: letting someone merge into your lane instead of gunning it so he can’t, or forgiving someone who cut you off, she said, could be part of a daily spiritual practice. It wasn’t easy to do all the time, but you get better with practice. How being polite in traffic was spiritual, I confess, escaped me at the time.
As I kept going to meetings, however, I kept hearing the phrase, “do the next right thing,” to describe what a spiritual program was and I began to get a glimpse.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I was introduced to the science of addiction that I began to really believe in the spiritual solution. Rigorous research shows that spiritual practices like meditation can alter brain function at a fundamental level in a very positive way (for more, click on How Becoming A Neuroscience Geek Supported My Sobriety; Mind Training; and Why Love Is Therapeutic).
Though I continue to doubt the existence of a sentient God, proof positive that you can still obtain the benefits of AA without that belief, what helped me come around was realizing that spirituality shifts the focus away from rational approaches to combating addiction, which usually miss the mark, because it’s a disease of fundamental irrationality.
For those who do believe, God is the foundation of living an honest life, the polar opposite of the fraudulence of addicts’ lives. I heard this expressed as, “God is the power you can’t lie to.” Furthermore, God’s love and care is infinite. Accessing that love can fill the void in addicts who feel fundamentally un-cared-for. The science of addiction suggests that since love increases dopamine, sensing God’s love could substitute, at least in part, for the dopamine elevation addicts used to seek in drugs. A spiritual solution shifts the attack on addiction to the brain’s emotional systems, the same networks that drugs manipulate. In other words, it focuses the solution on the same neural plane where addiction lives.