Science and Spirituality: If addiction is a brain disorder, why is spirituality an essential part of a recovery program?
Like most children, I was bright-eyed and full of love, purity, joy, and hope. I yearned for spiritual things and a connection with others and the world around me. But life dealt me a few hands that I was ill-equipped to deal with. Searching for a way to cope, I drank to overcome my insecurities and escape the feelings that seemed too painful to face.
I paid a high price for this choice. Not only did I develop an addiction (that left me without choice), but I became a person who no longer resembled that child with the world at its feet. I was someone who spent every waking moment trying to manipulate the world into giving him what he needed—which was another hit. I burned through jobs, friends, girlfriends, and finally my family like they were all replaceable. Bit by bit, this broke my character and my spirit.
You see, addiction is much more than just the physical condition of an uncontrollable craving for drugs and alcohol. It affects our entire lives. It is physical, emotional, and spiritual. Not only is our brain damaged by continual use, but our character and emotional life are destroyed as well. We become self-centered, self-willed, dishonest, angry, and self-destructive.
This is a spiritual crisis. We are not meant to be the center of the universe and consumed with selfishness. We are meant to have deep relationships with others, to serve our families and communities, and be connected to something greater than ourselves. Addiction robs us of all this. And for a spiritual problem, you need a spiritual remedy.
You can get clean and repair you brain with abstinence, but that by itself will not lead to serenity and a changed character. I know many people who are sober but miserable human beings. You may have heard of the term dry drunk. Well, this is them. They aren't using, but you wouldn't want to spend an evening together or work beside them every day.
If you want to recover, you need something much greater than mere abstinence. Yes, you need time for your brain to heal, but you also need a total change of character and heart. Through spiritual practices, including working the Steps, praying, and meditating, you can actually be transformed into the person you were meant to be. Research has shown that such activities help the brain regenerate and heal itself. It’s sort of like performing brain surgery on yourself—you get to play a part the kind of person you are becoming just like you did when you were using. Except this time, you are helping create a better you.
Likewise, through the process of allowing a higher power to guide you, you become connected with a loving force that can be the greatest power for positive change in your life. You can become less selfish and more humble, and learn that you can rely on that power to guide, protect, and help you stay clean. You clean the inside of the cup and become a productive member of society.
When I got clean, I really had a problem being honest. But by following the guidance of other members of NA and through prayer and action, I was able to complete what is called the Honesty Project. I had to go 30 days in a row without telling a lie. Every time I told a lie, I had to start over. It took me many months to finish, but an amazing thing happened along the way. My natural instinct slowly switched from a habit of bending the truth to telling the truth.
This was a deeply spiritual experience for me. I learned that I could change, and that God would help me if I was willing to put in the work. I learned to do the right thing without expectation of reward. Some people automatically learn these things from their parents or community, but I had gotten lost along the way. I needed help to get back on the right path.
This is just one example of how the spiritual aspect of recovery has helped transform my life. It has given me a story to tell that can help others, and that is why we wrote The Craving Brain: Science, Spirituality and the Road to Recovery. It wouldn’t have been possible without the change that's taken place in my life. And let's be honest. No one would want to hear the story if I was just an asshole that didn't drink anymore.
James B. is a recovering addict with extensive experience helping men in recovery and people at risk for addiction. He is currently the director of operations for a nonprofit and serves as a conference coordinator for a men’s organization.
A note from Dr. Spickard: "I learned so much from this man when we wrote our book together. Most of all the importance of spirituality in recovery. I feel blessed everyday that he shared his journey with me and was willing to share it with everyone else. He was brave to do it.”