By Nina Marie Corona
Most people personally unaffected by addiction probably do not see any correlation with spirituality. They generally assume that spirituality is associated with virtue, and addiction is connected to vice and sin. Or perhaps even more to the unspoken point — that spiritual people are moral, and addicted people are immoral. To add to the confusion, most drug and alcohol treatment facilities utilize the 12 steps (a spiritual program), and their main recommendation upon discharge is ongoing 12-step meetings (usually 90 meetings in 90 days). Without a real understanding of the role of spirituality in addiction, one might falsely assume that the answer is simply to get God and be good. But addiction is far more complex than that.
The nature of addiction is widely debated — from psychological theories of habit, desire, and impulse control, to neurobiological explanations of the intricate brain systems that regulate those desires, to spiritual arguments that describe a God-shaped hole. Amidst all the theories, we have to place our trust somewhere. I choose to place mine in the hands of those associations dedicated to the subject of addiction, such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine. ASAM defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of the brain” that affects the brain’s reward, motivation, and memory circuits. They note that “dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations.”
The problem is multifaceted; therefore, it is likely that the solution will be, too. Unfortunately there is often an all-or-nothing mentality in the recovery arena. Some advocate for a spiritual solution and scoff at medication, etc., and others argue for more scientific remedies and discredit the role of spirituality. An integrated approach is necessary — one that acknowledges that spirituality is one aspect of a disorder that affects both the afflicted and their loved ones in various ways (biologically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually).
Believe it or not, it was a psychologist who deemed addiction a spiritual problem! In the 1930s, Carl Jung worked extensively with a patient who suffered from alcoholism, and after about a year of psychoanalysis, the man relapsed. It was then that Jung determined that psychiatry had been ineffective, and that he believed the man’s only hope was a “spiritual awakening” or a “religious experience.”¹ Jung later wrote about the man’s condition in a letter to Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Jung wrote that his former patient’s “craving for alcohol was the equivalent … of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness … the union with God.” Jung’s now-infamous solution was spiritus contra spiritum, which loosely translated means: substitute the spirit of God for the alcoholic spirits. St. Augustine understood this craving long before Jung, and he wrote in his Confessions that this craving or restlessness can be stilled only by God.
Jung’s theory was that the spirit of alcohol was a misguided attempt to fill an “unrecognized spiritual need,” a craving for wholeness, and a longing for connection with others. People use substances to fill a need, and usually the need can be categorized as spiritual. For example, if you ask someone why they drink or use substances, some common responses are: “to feel more connected, more creative, more at peace, less afraid, or more loved.” These are spiritual states being sought through substances, because substances temporarily “mimic spiritual states of consciousness.” Alcohol, marijuana, heroin, and other substances temporarily fill that spiritual void.
But one of the many problems with this approach is that chemical substances are an inauthentic solution for a spiritual craving. And the biologically and psychologically addictive nature of some substances is a recipe for destruction, especially in those who have a genetic predisposition for addiction. Certainly no one who becomes addicted and loses everything ever thought it would happen to them. No one wants to grow up and be labeled an addict. What for some begins as an attempt to satisfy a spiritual longing sometimes ends up being a prison that even further alienates them from all they were seeking.
Results of a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse confirm that “stronger spiritual/religious beliefs and practices are directly associated with remission from (most) abused drugs.” How then do we help those who are suffering discover authentic spirituality? Once addiction has set in, a simple conversation with the person likely will not suffice. There are many other complexities within the brain that stand in the way of healing. Denial and ambivalence are very real attributes of addiction.
A basic education on the nature of the affliction is invaluable in helping us to be more empathetic listeners. Once we can catch a glimpse into the longing, craving, and hungry hearts of others, we can more easily be with them in their struggles. Only then can we be patient and compassionate guides to help them find their way through the darkness and into the “wonderful light.”
Nina Marie Corona is a certified recovery specialist and founder of AFIRE, a faith-based movement for families and communities struggling with addiction. Her website is ninamariecorona.com.