Skip to main content

See also:

The controversy and collision of addiction science and spirituality

No higher power is going to turn the beer off for the alcoholic, but a belief system proves to be a significant factor in long-term sobriety.
No higher power is going to turn the beer off for the alcoholic, but a belief system proves to be a significant factor in long-term sobriety.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Scientifically speaking, arresting the disease of alcoholism is very simple: Stop drinking alcohol. No one, regardless of genetics can ever be an active alcoholic without alcohol. A person can be an alcoholic-in-wait – or one in remission – with the genetic foundation for alcoholism. But in strictly medical terms, one will never know if he's alcoholic if he never drinks, and through abstinence an alcoholic can arrest the disease. As of today, there is no cure, similar to other diseases like cancer.

The condition the person is in following abstinence is viewed by addiction professionals as sobriety and, possibly, recovery. The difference between the two terms is a chasm filled with controversy because it reflects a difference in mental and emotional well-being. One school of thought is that there is no “recovery” without acknowledging and attaining spiritual growth. Quite a different line of thinking seeks to assure long-term sobriety by behavior change and retraining.

Take the categorization of a person as a “dry drunk” for example. The person isn't drinking, so he's sober. But the mental and emotional side may still be as bad or worse than while he was drinking, continuing odd or, oftentimes, antisocial behavior. The alcoholism was arrested but the alcoholic is still getting arrested, or flagged for being a jerk. That's far from “recovered.” In fact, some around him may prefer he was still drinking because then they'd know what his problem is, according to alcoholism relapse and recovery book Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud.

Advocates of spirituality in recovery, 12-step programs among them, say emotional and mental stability can only return to the alcoholic when he embraces in concept or in daily practice the presence of a higher power. According to research by Project MATCH, a program of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), spiritually focused addiction treatment programs have resulted in up to a 10 percent greater abstinence rate than other forms of treatment. Conversely, an infographic from Alternatives in Treatment's ebook Spirituality and Addiction acknowledges programs that focus on the negative and not a spiritual foundation have a lower lifetime sobriety rate.

For some that spiritual entity is god, God or some life force like nature. A growing proportion of 12-steppers are pagan, agnostic or don't recognize a Judeo-Christian concept of God. But the higher power could be extraterrestrials for that matter, as long as a belief system has sufficiently refilled the void in life and coping that alcohol was used to fill until the person became physically dependent upon the legal drug. These practices include meditation or prayer and strengthen (or establish) self-control and focus attention.

Research illustrates how including spirituality in a recovery program increases the individual's chances at long-term remission of the illness. Even in medical illnesses where the treatment of the illness involves some form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), spirituality aids recovery. Within the medical profession, health care workers have noted that individuals with a strong spiritual background recuperate more quickly from their health crisis.

This intricate web of spirituality and its influence on the recovery of individuals has spurred increasing research focusing on how issues related to spirituality, religion, and faith are incorporated into the treatment of individuals and their clinical outcomes. The 2004 clinical studies in the manual, Handbook on spirituality and worldview in clinical practice, report that spiritual people are less depressed, less anxious and less suicidal than nonspiritual people. They also cope better with events that are considered alcoholism relapse triggers, such as illness, divorce and grief.

TIME magazine, in it's Jan. 17, 2005 issue, concluded that the more people incorporated spiritual practices into their daily living the more frequently they had positive emotions and an overall sense of satisfaction with life. A separate study reported in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment in 2000 found higher levels of spirituality predicted more optimistic life orientation, great perceived social support, higher resilience to stress and lower levels of anxiety.

Spirituality works for many as a component of a counseling and/or a sobriety program, but it doesn't work for all. It's too far of a leap for many seeking to end their chemical dependence. Some say they've tried that and failed, others have a reluctance for faith (mistaking spirituality for organized religion), and yet others seek an entirely empirical answer to the perplexing disease and its associated behaviors.

For alcoholics in that mode of thinking, there are alternatives to 12-step-based treatment and self-help groups. Self Management and Recovery Training (SMART... four “points”), Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS... nine “principles”), Women for Sobriety and Men for Sobriety (WFS and MFS... 13 “statements”) all have reported successes and established footholds in the world of recuperative options. Redwood Cliffs, a Watsonville, Calif. Facility, has been offering long-term non-12-step rehabilitation services for more than 20 years. Late night and cable advertising for a high-end Malibu, Calif., facility uses “not a 12-step program” as a central theme of its commercial. It also claims to have a “cure.”

Alternatives to spirituality in recovery have neither the history nor the status of the intentionally media-shy Alcoholics Anonymous (AA...12 steps). Twelve-step methods are used in conjunction with 90 percent of the nation’s treatment facilities. But that doesn't mean they're 100 percent effective. God or god won't do all the work. No program – spiritual or secular – will be even one percent effective without a willing patient. Coercion doesn't work either.