Addiction and Spiritual Therapy
Chief Chaplain Michael Pollitt, D.Min, BCC, CAC
Successful treatment for addiction recovery treats the whole person – body, mind, and spirit. Drugs that have the ability to produce a state of intoxication (intoxicants) do many things, but they have a unique ability to mimic spiritual fulfillment. In the past, treatment often did not give enough attention to this side of addiction. Author Andrew Sheehan once wrote: “I suppose it sounds like a supreme rationalization to say that I believe my drinking and drugging began as a kind of spiritual search. And yet to this day I believe this to be true…..they began to fill the cavernous hole inside me – the great need to be connected to something outside of myself, to grasp in some way the great otherness, the hidden order of things.”1. What addicts and alcoholics want is a reason to live and intoxicants seem to meet this need. They have a way of becoming a spiritual replacement for the real thing. This may be a major reason why relapse is so common.
Traditional healthcare teams provide therapies for both the physical and mental health of their patients but all too often have not addressed the gaping hole that comes with sobriety. By taking away their drug of choice and with it pseudo meaning, they are now faced with meaninglessness. Spiritual therapy helps addicts and alcoholics find meaning in their lives. Give addicts and alcoholics a real reason to live and you give them a fighting chance at recovery.
No chaplain can give meaning to addicts and alcoholics, but a chaplain can help them discover meaning in their lives. Karen Urbanski, an occupational therapist, places spirituality alongside the physical and mental health problems the addict faces in treatment. She believes that a void exists in all of us and that we go through life attempting to fill that void with something that hints at meaningfulness. It is Urbanski’s belief that anything, whether it is healthy or toxic, can fill the void. People are geniuses at filling this void, but many of them have made unhealthy choices. This problem becomes even more difficult when the unhealthy choices are intoxicants. At least the drug of choice seemed to give the person some meaning and purpose in life. Urbanski argues that to give up one’s drug of choice does not begin to address the problem, but rather makes it worse because the void comes back. At this point, a new type of withdrawal occurs, which is best described as spiritual withdrawal.
Withdrawal is a “positive craving” for that which is no longer present. In this case, “positive” means “seeking after,” rather than “something good.” On a detox unit, when an addict or alcoholic goes through withdrawal, every cell in their body screams for their drug of choice. The same thing happens spiritually. When the source of their spirituality replacement is taken away, they may crave that inner feeling of meaningfulness the drug provided. For some people, this may be the root cause of relapse. The addict or alcoholic can no longer reach for instant meaningfulness in their drug of choice, and they are left with a sense of meaninglessness and depression.
The healthcare team has long treated the physical and mental health needs of the addict and alcoholic. Often the healthcare team has ignored spiritual needs and spiritual withdrawal. The spiritual counselor seeks to find out which spiritual needs are met by the patient’s drug of choice and which spiritual needs are not being met when the person is sober. This approach speaks to the importance of the spiritual side of addiction, and the belief that intoxicants are used to fake an answer to those needs. The major problem that addicts and alcoholics face in recovery is not addiction but rather relapse.
Relapse, the return to one’s drug of choice after being sober, may be primarily a spiritual problem. In sobriety, the spiritual space that the intoxicant once filled is empty. Nature hates a vacuum and will eventually fill it. Unfortunately, for the addict or alcoholic, that vacuum is often filled with the drug of choice. The addict and alcoholic cannot be spiritually passive in recovery. With the aid of a spiritual counselor, the addict and alcoholic can fill the emptiness with real meaning in their lives, providing a reason for living. Successful addiction recovery treats the whole person – body, mind, and spirit.
As far back as the early 1900s, William James, MD (The Varieties of the Religious Experience, 1902) 2, found striking similarities between intoxication and the mystical state. He labeled them “pathological mysticism” and “the anesthetic revelation.” James believed there were two basic functions in man and woman, the “yes” function and “no” function. There should be a proper balance between the two. When the “no” function dominates, the person desperately looks for something to bring back a spiritual equality in his or her life. What the person discovers is that intoxicants become “the great exciter of the yes function in man” and appear to restore the balance.
Another pioneer in the field, Howard Clinebell, PhD (Understanding and Counseling Persons with Alcohol and Drug and Behavioral Addictions, 1984), maintains that “we will never understand intoxication as a problem until we see it as a solution.” He also observes that the spiritual anxiety of the addict and alcoholic is “quieted” by the “pseudo-religious sense of oneness with themselves, others, and the divine spirit.” The addict and alcoholic attempt to satisfy spiritual needs with chemical means.
In the late 1980s Gerald May, MD (Addiction and Grace, 1988), a layman, reminded clergy of the major spiritual elements in addiction and called on them to utilize their tools in their ministry to the addicted. According to May, addicts and alcoholics attach themselves to things that appear to fill their spiritual void. Because intoxicants produce a good feeling they become substitutes for the authentically spiritual.
Stephen Anthrop (Alcohol and Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Clergy and Congregations, 1990), believes that we seek out things in our lives that appear to have apparent spiritual potential. When the spiritual potential is not activated, the person sees little reason to exist. Intoxicants become resources with apparent spiritual value: unfortunately, they can also become the primary source of value in the life of the addicted.
Thomas Baker, D.Min. (Understanding the Spiritual Nature of Addiction, 1995), argues that both spirituality and intoxication involve a search for meaning, value, and purpose in life. All persons desire these, but addicts and alcoholics are afflicted with a unique spiritual hunger that they cannot seem to satisfy with traditional forms of spirituality. He also observes that addicts and alcoholics suffer greatly from estrangement and intoxicants seem to provide a sense of connectedness.
1. Andrew Sheehan, Chasing the Hawk: Looking for my Father, Finding Myself, (New York: Delacorte Press, 2001), 203.
2. An historical note: It was James’ book that Ebby Thacher gave to Bill Wilson (founders of A.A.) in November 1934 at Towns Hospital, NYC.
3. Offering Spiritual Support for Family or Friends (Caring Connections)
4. What is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
5. Mind-Body Medicine: An Overview (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)