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I was reading an article online recently called “Spirituality and Addiction”, by Lance Dodes, M.D., a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Dodes is a highly regarded professional in the field of addictions and has written books on the subject. The quote that struck out to me was this;
“Addiction is not a spiritual problem.Indeed, saying that it is has caused a great deal of pain to many.Addiction is hard enough for people, without having to think they have shallow or tormented souls.”
I’m not a highly trained professional in any sense. My own struggles with addiction have allowed me the opportunity to explore options and opinions from a wide variety of sources in my own treatment. I was surprised by the quote because I couldn’t understand how a highly trained, experienced medical professional in the field of addictions could arrive at such an opinion about spirituality. Would the Pope or Dalai Lama set a broken leg with the same confidence? This kind of contempt is so common in addictions and addictions services that it seems impossible to hear a solution in all the white noise. For me it took a miracle, and after 16 plus years of complete abstinence, it’s a miracle I try and appreciate daily. My own contempt has been a companion for many years. I was fortunate to have found Narcotics Anonymous early in my recovery and found acceptance from the fellowship. I was welcomed when I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there. I arrived because of substance abuse and confused that Narcotics Anonymous said that the substance abuse was only a symptom of the problem. I wanted to know more because I had run out of options. I even questioned my ability to make decisions about my recovery and sought the help of members who seemed to have similar experiences. (Basic Text, Grey Book, published 1982, “Who is an addict”)
Addiction is a contradiction to living. It is a state of mind which relies on convincing ourselves that drugs are necessary to maintain our sense of well-being. For us, an addict is a person who uses drugs, in any form, to the extent that the individual cannot live normally with or without them.
I explored the idea that addiction was a disease and sought to understand what N.A. had to offer. The disease model of addiction is widely accepted by many experts. I wanted to hold on to old ideas and struggled to accept new ones. I felt an acceptance in Narcotics Anonymous that I had never experienced except when I was loaded. Members communicated regularly with each other and we fell into a pattern of helping each other. It almost seemed to become normal. I did struggle with the idea that I could never use again. (Chapter 2, What is Narcotics Anonymous)
This is a program of complete abstinence from all drugs. There is only "One" requirement for membership, the honest desire to stop using…The Steps and abstinence give us daily reprieves from our self-imposed life sentences.
After three months I remember going to the man who would eventually sponsor me with a crisis that happened during the day. A nice lady at the coffee shop where I got my regular fixes of lattes occasionally gave me a chocolate.On my way back to work, while eating the chocolate, I realized that they were full of liquor. I questioned my clean time. This man and I had discussions on what complete abstinence looked like. He and I talked about how addicts worked the steps to understand their disease and worked with professionals to manage their health. We talked about how methadone and suboxone were not treating health issues, but simply the management of withdrawal symptoms from drugs. Many addicts in early recovery gorge on cigarettes, coffee and sugar for the same reason. Drug Replacement Therapy (DRT) or Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) are using drugs but not self-medicating anymore. The traditions of N.A. say that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using. N.A. was designed for all members to be the same, even if they are still using. From what I learned of the early years, DRT/MAT seemed an improvement over the risks members’ took detoxing newcomers rapidly in their homes. It was an uncomfortable feeling dealing with fellow members who were using while trying to remain supportive as equals.
The benefits of staying clean become evident as I surrounded myself with the program and worked the steps. I understood that (Chapter 5, “What can I do”) “Abstinence is the basis of our program. Any mood or mind-altering chemical, prescription or not, is poison to our bodies.” I supported members who required medication to manage health concerns and watched as they struggled with the disease again. I learned more about myself in my struggles with the disease by meeting regularly with other members and helping each other stay clean. I started to work the steps and read literature.
We gave up--quit struggling-- surrendered, completely and unconditionally. Then and only then did we begin to recover from the disease of addiction. Recovery begins with the first admission of powerlessness.
When the compulsion to use is lifted from us, and we begin to think of others before ourselves, a true miracle begins. Working the steps, practicing the principles and using the tools, we begin to see ourselves in a new light. We find ourselves helping others and securing help for our own problems…
Recovery is more than just staying clean. Living by spiritual principles outlined in the Steps, many clean addicts become useful and productive citizens. At meetings we are repeatedly convinced that recovering addicts are among the most sensitive, responsive and loving people in society. Ongoing recovery demands more. We must change radically. If we are to continue abstinence we must be responsible and productive, not necessarily in terms of normal definitions, but in terms of spiritual principles…
We are grateful to have stayed clean long enough for the message of total abstinence to take hold…Complete abstinence is the foundation for our new way of life.
All these years later I still find myself marveling at this new way of life and the changes in my perspectives. Members often hear the phrase “attraction, not promotion” at meetings and I use to think about that from a highly self-obsessed viewpoint. Attraction to this way of life isn’t about my life, but about our lives as a Fellowship. When I look at unity of the Fellowship from my perspective the danger is that I’m promoting uniformity. The diversity and all these lifestyles in our groups starts to feel like that white noise I remember early on. I have found that dedication to the primary purpose of carrying a message ahead of all else keeps me focused. It becomes easy to lose the fact that I am only alive because of the grace of my higher power, and each day I need to acknowledge and humble myself to that fact. When I fail to consider that grace, my recovery can quickly become hubris or ingratitude and turn to contempt.
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