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Twelve-Step Spirituality

Author: Gene R. Wallace, PsyD/Thursday, April 8, 2010/Categories: Chemical Dependency

As a disease, addiction is treated medically, mentally and psychologically, all within the context of social rehabilitation. Recovering people often say it is an “allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind.” Emphasis is placed on absolute abstinence and strict adherence to a program of recovery. While all of this is true, an additional element is frequently omitted: spirituality. Researchers and care-giving professionals often overlook the role spirituality plays in recovery (Galanter, 2006).

Those living successfully in recovery will say it is a spiritual program. However, it seems to be assumed that the connection between spirituality and recovery is obvious. And many scientists object to any reference to spirituality. According to Chapman (1996), part of the reason for this resistance is because spirituality is difficult to study objectively:

Many of these professionals argue that to define alcoholism
as including a spiritual component invites nonscientific if not
mystical approaches to treatment. For this reason, it has
been difficult to legitimize a definition of alcoholism
that considers spiritual components to etiology or treatment.

Although Chapman’s work addresses alcoholism specifically, his conclusion is equally applicable to all Twelve-Step programs. In this article, therefore, addict will reference all substance/activity abusers, regardless of the specific addiction.

Recovering from addiction includes the search for personal wholeness and community connection (Chapman, 1996). For some addicts, this search leads to or further supports a belief in theistic reality. Others prefer to think of this greater reality as a pervasive presence or a universal spirit of purpose and guidance. In contrast, for avowed atheists and those addicts who cannot consider the possibility of a personal god, the concept of “higher power” suffices. For example, a sponsor or recovering community often serves as one’s higher power.

Twelve-Step spirituality is a humanistic quest, a search for the core of one’s true humanity. This core “is the deepest center of the person, for it is here that the person is open to the transcendent dimension” (Cook, 2004). Bowden identifies the quest as a process of seeking “self-knowledge and enhanced relationships” (Bowden, 1998). In addition to seeking physical, mental and emotional stability, the addict also seeks spiritual well-being. The North American Nursing Diagnosis Association defines spiritual well-being as “the process of an individual’s developing or unfolding of mystery through harmonious interconnectedness that springs from inner strengths.” The unfolding mystery is often described as awareness beyond thought and feeling (Miller, 2003).

The total bankruptcy of human self-worth — a condition that feels all-encompassing and consisting of more than just physical, mental and emotional destruction — describes what it is like to be in spiritual crisis (Warfield, 1996). As such, discussion of the physical, mental and emotional is, by extension, a discussion of the spiritual person. Spiritual recovery begins in the depths of desperate isolation and ascends gradually toward healthy self-esteem and genuine concern for others. As this process advances, the addict begins to experience positive interaction between self, community and higher power.

Twelve-Step spirituality can be divided into three stages of growth: (A) surrender/acceptance, steps one-three; (B) self-examination, steps four-eleven; (C) discovery of self-esteem and relational living, step twelve. Not surprisingly, these three stages correspond with those identified in other models of spirituality. For reference, see Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, where the author outlines an almost identical pathway: (A) purgative; (B) illuminative; (C) unitive, (Underhill, 1955). Of additional interest, the mystical pathway generally includes a confessor and a community of fellow seekers. This is an unmistakable parallel to the concept of needing a sponsor and regular attendance at Twelve-Step meetings.

The surrender/acceptance stage is crucially important because it begins the transition away from self-entrapment. Step one is existential neurosis: “feelings of despair and anxiety that arise from living inauthentically, that is from failing to take responsibility for one’s own life and to make choices and find meaning in living” (APA, 2007). The turmoil for the addict in the first step includes the duality of self-loathing and the longing for unconditional love (May, 1982). Picture a broken, totally decimated addict who has just enough awareness left to ask, “Is this all there is?” This is abject hopelessness, total “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” As painful as it is, surrender must accept this as fact, not as colorful metaphor.

Acceptance derives from insight. Addiction is insanity. Acceptance of this fact leads to the insight that only a “power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” There is no other way forward. Acceptance is the decision to turn his or her “life over to the care of God as we understood Him [sic].” Acceptance is the threshold to self-examination.

Self-examination focuses on the need to rely on external authority, such as a higher power, a sponsor, Twelve-Step meetings and the Big Book. Steps four through 11 are exciting because they lead to integration. The body, mind, emotions and spiritual longing begin to act as one. Robert D. Warfield (1996) defined this integration as positive spirituality:

When we experience positive spirituality, we tend to view
ourselves as lovable, capable, and deserving. We allow
others to enter and enrich our lives without feeling a need
to manipulate, use, or abuse them. We find our world
(job, school, community) to be a largely safe place wherein
we are able to develop toward our full potential.

Taking responsibility for one’s actions, attitudes and beliefs is the ultimate goal of these steps. In the self-examination stage, total commitment is required, a complete willingness to know and accept the truth. Making a personal commitment and listening to the advice of others, particularly one’s sponsor, is essential.

Commitment requires the exercise of the will. The gift of making good choices begins immediately with step four. At last, “I can choose; I can choose to make a fearless and searching moral inventory.” The choice is to be in relationship with a higher power and to become a productive member of the human race (May, 1987). Self-examination leads to the discovery and reclaiming of lost dignity, self-esteem and relational living.

Fruitful self-examination leads to the twelfth step. Interestingly, the twelfth step contains the only mention of spirituality in the entire Twelve-Step program. The assumption must be that steps one through 11 are spiritual in nature. If all the steps are spiritual, how is the discovery of the twelfth step different from the first 11? Clearly, the addict begins a journey of self-discovery right at the beginning of the first step. And, who would not refer to the promises as great discovery: “We are going to know a new freedom” (AA, 1976)? What makes the twelfth step different?

Step 12 is about the profound conviction that something very powerful has occurred: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message…” (AA, 1976). This awakening is a tremendous discovery, very much like the recovering of eyesight. The addict can now say, “I have been given spirituality and I want to share it!” At last, the addict is no longer the “center of the universe” but is now ready to tell others about the miracle of recovery. The addict has discovered a wonderful new life of positive self-regard and self-giving service to others. Martin Buber calls this the I/Thou relationship, the highest expression of what it means to be truly human.

Twelve-Step spirituality continually moves the addict forward from isolation toward the discovery of the true self. The steps are like a spiral stairway always moving up and up. It is not an end to be achieved but a way of life to be lived. Surrender/acceptance, self-examination and the discovery of self-esteem and relational living are the Twelve-Step stages of spiritual growth that supports the addict’s search for purposeful living.

References:
AA World Services, Inc. (1976). Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how many
thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism
 (3rd ed.). New York:
Author.

American Psychological Association (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology.
Washington, DC.

Bowden, J.W. (1998). Recovery from alcoholism: a spiritual journey. Issues in Mental
Health Nursing
, 19, 337-352.

Chapman. R.J. (1996). Spirituality in the treatment of alcoholism: a worldview.
Counseling and Values, 40, 39.

Cook, C.C.H. (2004). Addiction and spirituality. Addiction, 99, 539-551.

Galanter, M. (2006). Spirituality and addiction: a research and clinical perspective. The American Journal on Addiction, 15, 286-292.

May, G.G. (1987). Will and Spirit. New York: Harper Collins.

Miller, W.R. & Thorsen, C.E. (2003). Spirituality, religion, and health. American
Psychologist
, 58, 24-35.

Underhill, E. (1955). Mysticism. New York: World Publishing.

Warfield, R.D. & Goldstein, M.B. (1996). Spirituality: the key to recovery from
alcoholism. Counseling and Values, 40, 196-205.

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