There was a post recently in the Alcohol Explained Facebook Group with some fairly pronounced religious overtones. The recovery community is an amazing thing in many ways. It’s hard to imagine where else you could find such a large group of people whose main interest is to help one another, and who are so friendly and supportive. But if there’s one thing guaranteed to animate people, it’s the issue of religion in recovery.
When examining this topic it’s worth remembering that alcohol anaesthetises. This means that when we are drinking we tend to be able to ignore parts of our life that would otherwise be intolerable and that (without the alcohol) we would take steps to rectify. It ranges from little things like not bothering to shave, or tidy up, or make proper meals, to much bigger things like ignoring bills, not bothering to work at a relationship, or even staying in an otherwise toxic relationship.
It’s a self-propelling problem. When we are drunk or hungover we just don’t feel mentally equipped to deal with things, but those things don’t go away, they stay there in the back of our minds like a cloud forever hanging over us, making us all the more likely to reach for a drink to take the edge off our ever increasing worries, which leaves us even more drunk and / or hungover. And so the cycle continues.
So often when people stop drinking they often face a swathe of problems that they need to do something about, now that they can no longer hide from them behind a haze of alcohol. The good news is that as the person returns to their usual level of mental resilience and confidence they feel far better equipped to deal with these problems, even those that may seem insurmountable. These problems could be relationship problems, work problems, financial problems, losing weight, eating better, taking exercise, etc. If the person is ordinarily spiritual there may well be a spiritual element to this. People who are religious may well neglect their religious beliefs and practices when they are drinking, causing them to feel guilt and conflict, and find when they stop they naturally look to rectify this.
It’s also the case, as I often say, that quitting drinking isn’t just about not taking another drink, it is about finding something else to turn to when times get hard. Drinkers drink when the bad times come, they use it as a coping mechanism. When they stop drinking the bad times still come, and they need a way of coping with those bad times now they can no longer just reach for a drink to take the edge off them. I use to exercise a lot, so I often advise people to exercise. Others suggest meditation, meeting friends, reading, yoga, or reaching out to other sober people. All these suggestions are made with the best intentions; to help someone who is struggling, to help them find a way to a far better life. If someone is spiritual or religious they may well use this to aid them when times get hard. It can help them to put up with adversity, to face their own mortality, and to make sense of their time on this planet.
If someone has stopped drinking, and has then taken steps to redress the spiritual side of their life, and then used that to help them to deal with their life, then I can fully understand why they would then try to help others by suggesting a spiritual approach to quitting. The problem is that religious and spiritual beliefs are incredibly complicated, and belief is not something you can simply choose. Trying to convince yourself that you believe in something when you don’t believe in it creates a false foundation. Whatever you then build on that foundation is a tower just waiting to collapse. It is a frustrating and ultimately pointless process. For many, convincing them that their sobriety is reliant on believing in something that they cannot believe in, is akin to telling them that they can never quit. It is a death sentence, or in many ways worth than a death sentence, because the misery caused by long-term heavy drinking is often worse than death (which the suicide rates among those with alcohol dependency is a stark testament to).
The reverse is absolutely the case too. Some people are spiritual. When they stop drinking they will turn again to the spiritual side of their lives, and they will use that as the coping mechanism where once they relied on alcohol. Denying them a spiritual solution is just as much a death sentence for them as forcing the spiritual solution on someone who does not have it in their nature to believe that the solution to their problem is religious or spiritual.
Addiction does not have a ‘one size fits all’ solution. What works for one person may not work for another and it is not even as black and white as spiritual / non-spiritual; the vast majority of people are in a huge area of differing shades of grey.
All we can do is offer advice and help to others. We usually (but not exclusively) do this by explaining and recommending the route we found out of the maze.
What we need to be careful not to do is to become so enamoured with our own solution that we forget that it might not be right for someone else, or become annoyed or defensive when someone recommends a method that didn’t work for us.
What we need to keep at the forefront of our minds is that every time someone offers a solution, they are doing it to try to help another human being. And the person seeking help needs to remember to treat this as a buffet, not a set menu. They need to look at what’s on offer, decide what they like the look of, take that and discard the rest.