A DOCTOR’S TAKE ON SPIRITUALITY


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At the start of this article, I want to say that it is different from others I have written.  While I usually try to present facts and minimize my personal opinion, this paper is one where I express solely my own thoughts and opinions.  I have had success communicating these ideas to my patients. Many have said that it helps them understand some of the concepts so often thrown about by people in recovery.  I want to point out that I have not suffered from an addiction and hope that this allows me to approach spirituality from a more objective viewpoint.  Many people feel strongly about some of the following concepts.  I apologize to anyone who objects to any interpretation I have made.  There is no absolute definition of spirituality and everyone should follow the concept that helps him or her the most.  I only hope this article helps some people who may have had difficulty relating to the concept of spirituality in their own recovery.

 

Spirituality is a concept that permeates the treatment of addiction.  I often hear recovering persons speaking about there own spirituality and how it changed them.  It is widely discussed in academic conferences.  Some brave soul gets up in front of a crowd of hundreds of health care providers and relates his or her own experience with substance abuse and recovery and then credits some spiritual revelation that allowed them to enter recovery.  Everywhere I turn, there are so many people giving spirituality paramount importance.  Even state agencies require it to be discussed during addiction treatment.  The assumption is that if a person is not spiritual, they cannot be in recovery.  I almost envied recovering people for the life tragedies that gave them understanding of this concept.  Without such an understanding of spirituality, I felt that I would always remain an outsider working in this field.  And what was worse, I would not be able to impart insight to my patients.

 

Like many people who are in early recovery, I initially thought that spirituality had to do with religious devotion and practice.  As someone with only a moderate religious upbringing and having my own doubts about the core beliefs implicit in religion, I could not picture giving anyone insights into a spirituality that I did not feel I possessed myself.  I have found many persons, who are beginning treatment, express similar doubts about AA since the concepts of “spirituality” and “higher power” are so significant in AA practice.  They feel these are religious concepts making AA a quasi- religious institution.

 

As I thought about this concept over the years, I observed various things and asked various questions.  Why does talking about things make us feel better?  Why do we feel good after seeing a sad movie as long as we identify with the characters?  I wondered if these experiences were similar to what people experience in a 12-step meeting.  At other times, I recalled certain feelings of contentment when I was among a group of people with whom I felt I belonged.

 

I thought about human evolution and the fact that there have been millions of years that we, and the species from which we evolved, lived in small tribal units.  There needed to be some connection between one member of a tribe and another in order to establish a unity that allowed coexistence and cooperation for a common goal.  This connection is probably similar to that which exists between members of a family.  I believe that there is a biological need for this connection, a need that has evolved over millions of years. It is as strong today as ever.  The connection is obviously not a physical one.  For lack of a better description, I say it is an emotional connection.  It is my belief that this is the same as the spiritual connection.

 

In most people, the emotional connection seems to be to other people; however some people can connect to an activity of some type.  Many people emotionally connect within their religious activities.   Religion has been society’s answer in providing for this need but it is only one solution.  Do not confuse the need, which is for spiritual or emotional connection, with a solution, which is religion.  I believe the confusion stems from the fact that profoundly religious people, described as spiritual leaders, are often interacting with others on an emotional level.  Also, spiritual is an adjective often used with religious activities.  However, I feel spirituality exists outside of religion.  12 step meetings also provide forums for the spiritual connection. 

 

Addiction is often described as a spiritual disease and I agree with this assessment.  Emotional isolation is just about a universal problem in addiction.  The patients I meet are amazed how I pick up on their isolation after a single brief meeting. They do not realize that I assume that such isolation is present in all my patients.

 

While I feel AA is extremely important, I have also seen people maintain recovery even though they do not participate in AA.  They have managed to become emotionally connected in some way.  Perhaps, they have become attached to a new person in their life.  Perhaps they reconnect to a spouse, child etc.  Perhaps, they have found an activity they are truly passionate about.  Many do find comfort in traditional religious beliefs and activities.  Yet, however they do it, they emerge from their emotional isolation.  This emergence is necessary for contentment and contentment is necessary for recovery.

 

We connect emotionally when we identify with a movie character.  We connect emotionally when we talk about our problems.  And, hopefully, we connect emotionally when we share or listen to the stories at 12 step meetings.  We relax within our sense of belonging to the AA group.  We feel contentment and feel better about ourselves.  I feel that the spiritual person is the person who is able to consistently connect with others on this emotional level.

 

As for the concept of higher power, I object to the term higher.  I, personally, do not think of this as connecting to God or some other religious or cultural figure standing above us.  But I feel that when we connect emotionally, it seems that we connect to an outside power.  It is the power in the love and support that we receive from the people who surround us and care about us and give us that sense of belonging.

 

People who are in recovery are my favorite people.  There is a sense of contentment about them even in time of stress.  They can make you experience that contentment just by talking with them.  An emotional or spiritual connection is made and you just feel good.  And when you feel good, it is easier to resist the drug cravings that threaten to drag you down.

 

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