The Power of Spiritual Awakening in Addiction Recovery

By Joe Nowinski 02/16/17

Criticism of AA continues, despite more than two decades of scientific research on the 12-step model that document its effectiveness.

A young man holding hands together in prayer, eyes closed.
Skeptics aside, researchers have been able to define spirituality and its relation to recovery.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how." Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” echoed the role of purpose in driving an individual to a positive life. And Carl Jung, in a letter to AA founder Bill Wilson, noted the power of “real religious insight” for people struggling with alcoholism. Spirituality, service and trust in a higher power became key aspects of 12-step programs, but some question their role and value in recovery. Dr. Joseph Nowinski, a psychologist and expert in 12-step recovery, argues that spirituality is a powerful ingredient in recovery…Richard Juman, PsyD

Seventeen and a junior in high school, “Martin” had been diagnosed variously since age 10 as bipolar and depressed. In addition, he was a daily cannabis user as well as a binge drinker. Recently he’d gotten into cocaine—which also got him arrested (for having both cannabis and cocaine in his school backpack)—and from there, into an intensive outpatient program (IOP) as an alternative to jail. At that point he was failing almost all of his courses and had missed so much school that he was a candidate to have to repeat that year.

In groups, Martin was a challenge, in particular because of his negative attitude. He would smirk, grunt, or laugh under his breath at other teens’ comments or reports on what they’d been doing outside of treatment. When confronted about this, he would shrug and deny that he intended any disrespect.

Although his demeanor might suggest that he was depressed, what Martin suffered from ran deeper than that. The word that best described him (and many other teen substance abusers) is ennui, which is generally defined as a state in which the individual suffers from a pervasive lack of spirit, enthusiasm, or interest. Teens like Martin are existentially adrift and cynical.

Martin came from what most people would consider a good family. He had an older sister who’d been an A student and was now doing well in college. He’d never suffered any abuse; on the contrary, he enjoyed a fairly cozy lifestyle. If there was a problem in Martin’s life, it was his father. A driven, financially successful man, Martin’s dad had never approved of or expressed much interest in his son’s early interests, which included art (drawing, painting) and writing poetry. He’d even gone so far as to ridicule them on occasion. The result was that Martin abandoned this core part of his identity—but found nothing to replace it. The family was Christian and attended services weekly, but by age 10, Martin had already become alienated from religion. That was also when he began to drink and smoke pot, started failing in school, and became less and less of a presence in the family.

In one group therapy session, Martin made a cynical comment in response to another teen saying that she had begun to volunteer at a food pantry sponsored by her church. Asked about this, Martin cynically said, “Those people should just get a job. They’re just weak losers.” “And how do you see yourself, Martin?” asked the therapist. “I challenge authority,” was the reply. “I see,” was the therapist’s rejoinder. “Is there anything else, aside from being kind of cynical toward authority, and maybe others in general? Do you have any interests, any goals you’d like to achieve?” Martin responded with silence.

Martin’s first breakthrough came when that teen who spoke about the food pantry challenged Martin to spend a morning there with her the following weekend. Cornered, Martin reluctantly agreed.

Over the next month, Martin not only made the first real friend he’d ever had (the girl who volunteered at the food pantry) but discovered that this was a place where he actually felt comfortable and was an activity he liked doing. Then he took a real risk and shared with his new friend the fact that he had once liked to draw, and that he had a small collection of poetry, along with a portfolio of drawings, in boxes in his closet. Eventually he was coaxed into sharing some of this, first with the other teens in his IOP group, and then with an art teacher at school. His therapist noted the spark that Martin showed when he opened up about his long suppressed creative side, along with the pleasure he derived from an altruistic activity. What happened to Martin may not have been dramatic, but it could rightly be called a spiritual awakening. It marked the path out of ennui, a recognition of a higher purpose and the start of his road to recovery.

Spirituality in Recovery

Recent years have seen a steady stream of criticism of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program of recovery from addiction. This criticism typically comes from professionals who are seeking to promote a favored alternative, such as Moderation Management or Harm Reduction Therapy. There is little hard evidence that these alternatives are effective for men and women with severe alcohol or drug abuse problems. This criticism continues, despite more than two decades of scientific research on the 12-step model that document its effectiveness. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office recently issued the following statement upon its analysis of this research: “Well supported scientific evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of 12-step mutual aid groups focused on alcohol and 12-step facilitation interventions.”

Critics of 12-step recovery seek to throw shadow over every aspect of the program. Recently, for example, Dr. Mark Kern, chairman of the Moderation Management program that seeks to help individuals moderate their substance use, wrote an article in which he argues that the “Serenity Prayer”—an integral component of the spiritual aspect of 12-step recovery—can actually have a deleterious effect on recovery, ostensibly because it advocates acceptance of the loss of control over substance use and the consequent need to give it up. A possible impact of embracing such an argument is to continue trying to stop or moderate substance use in the face of growing consequences. Those in recovery have learned the lesson of such foolishness, which they are inclined to refer to as “insanity.”

Contrary to criticisms that AA and other similar fellowships that seek to support abstinence (often a rocky road) are either religions—or worse, cults—they are neither. Rather, they can be called “spiritual” because of the values, beliefs (such as in the Serenity Prayer) and activities they advocate. These values include honesty, humility (as opposed to arrogance) and behaviors such as altruism, prayer, and meditation.

How Does Spirituality Relate to Recovery?

Skeptics aside, researchers in the past two decades have been able to objectively define spirituality and then study its relation to recovery from addiction. Let’s look at two of them.

Dr. Stephanie Carroll of the California School of Professional Psychology defined the following as aspects of spirituality:

  • Prayer
  • Meditation
  • Reading spiritual material (for example, daily meditations)
  • Spending time in nature (for example, hiking or camping)
  • Interacting with art (visiting a museum, painting or drawing)
  • Attending a religious service
  • Greeting a newcomer at an AA meeting
  • Engaging in AA service activities
  • Engaging in non-AA community service activities
  • Volunteering to be a sponsor or temporary sponsor

Following 100 AA members, Dr. Carroll found that activities such as meditation, prayer, reading spiritual material, and communing with art or nature, were significantly correlated with length of recovery. 

Dr. John Kelly of Harvard University examined the role of spirituality in recovery in a sample of 1,726 men and women, and defined spirituality in this way:

  • Praying
  • Meditating
  • Attending religious services
  • Reading holy or spiritual writings

What Dr. Kelly found was that as involvement in AA increased over time, spirituality also increased. This led him to conclude that “spirituality is important in recovery, and that AA appears to mobilize spiritual changes, which help explain AA’s beneficial effects on recovery.” (Kelly, J. F., Stout, R. L., Magill, M., Tonigan, J. S., & Pagano, M. E. [2011])

Spiritual Awakening

It is not only spirituality—broadly defined above—but also more dramatic spiritual experiences, that can exert real effects on our lives. One such phenomenon is commonly referred to as a “spiritual awakening” or epiphany. Though more rare than the sort of spirituality that seems to typically develop through recovery, such spiritual experiences have the power to dramatically alter the course of a person’s life. Consider the following account shared by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, of an experience she had in her early 20s. She had spent two years as an inpatient at the Institute of Living in Hartford, and was discharged as “one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital.”

She was hospitalized again and emerged confused, lonely and more committed than ever to her Catholic faith. She moved into another Y, found a job as a clerk in an insurance company, started taking night classes at Loyola University, and prayed—often—at a chapel in the Cenacle Retreat Center.

“One night I was kneeling in there, looking up at the cross, and the whole place became gold—and suddenly I felt something coming toward me,” she said. “It was this shimmering experience, and I just ran back to my room and said, ‘I love myself.’ It was the first time I remember talking to myself in the first person. I felt transformed.”

The high lasted about a year before the feelings of devastation returned in the wake of a romance that ended. But something was different. She could now weather her emotional storms without cutting or harming herself.

Spirituality: Good Medicine for All?

Marsha Linehan’s experience in that chapel marked the path out of self-hatred, just as Martin’s experiences at the homeless shelter provided a more gradual push towards a different self-concept.

So, if we are willing to look beyond the skeptics and critics of 12-step recovery and the blueprint for living that it offers, we see that the two interact—that spirituality supports lifestyle change, and that 12-step fellowship involvement supports spirituality. This can be important information for those who are struggling to control or stop their use of alcohol or drugs, and who are contemplating giving a 12-step fellowship a try. It might help to ease their misgivings about whether they are about to join a cult, or exactly what “spirituality” is.

But what about everyone else? What about all those who are not struggling to control their substance use, but who may nevertheless be seeking a more fulfilling life? What about those who identify with a feeling of being adrift in life? What research suggests is that the pursuit of spiritual activities, and finding space for them in our lifestyles, may be very beneficial.

And who among us could not benefit from contemplating the following now and again?

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Joseph Nowinski’s most recent book is If You Work It, It Works: The Science Behind Twelve Step Recovery.

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Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized clinical psychologist and author of . If You Work It, It Works: The Science Behind Twelve Step Recovery. He has written articles for the Huffington Post, TheFix, and Psychology Today.. He has held positions as Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, and Associate Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut. After retiring from the University of Connecticut Dr. Nowinski accepted a position as Assistant Professor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies, where he teaches Advanced Twelve Step Facilitation. He is currently in independent practice in Tolland Connecticut. You can also find Dr. Nowinski on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.