The Spiritual Aspect of Getting Well

The Spiritual Aspect of Getting Well

by Jerry Gjesvold

One of the more controversial aspects of treatment for chemical dependency is the use of spiritually based approaches like those pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous.

“How is it appropriate,” critics ask, “for a scientific, medical approach to rely on unscientific elements like prayer, meditation and belief in a ‘Higher Power’?”

I appreciate their concerns. Leading treatment centers pride themselves on using the most advanced scientific methods – and spirituality isn’t science. At the same time, many of our patients come to us deeply resistant to spiritual concepts.

It can be hard to watch them struggle. Many treatment professionals would like nothing better than to make the process easier – to find a talk therapy, medication or surgical procedure that would arrest the disease without facing the personally challenging issue of spirituality.

The problem is that in virtually all cases, the spiritual component seems to be essential to lasting, quality recovery.

I haven’t done exhaustive research, but I can say that in more than 35 years’ work with thousands of recovering people, I have not yet seen a person experience a contented, reasonably happy sobriety without what AA calls “a spiritual solution.” Not one.

In every case, there’s been growing spiritual awareness – a spiritual awakening, if you will. These patients find the stability and overall contentment necessary to stay sober through life’s ups and downs. The others don’t.

Of course, opening oneself up to a spiritual experience can be difficult – especially for alcoholics and addicts. These are men and women who are typically intensely controlling, and spiritual experiences generally involve a very real letting go of control.

Usually, these people also find trusting others to be quite challenging. And on top of that, many equate spirituality with a particular religious approach that they rejected long before. All of this can make openness to spiritual concepts and practices very difficult.

If they are willing to try, however (usually because another alcoholic or addict they respect models how), they often find that it is not as difficult as it seems.

That’s because the 12-step approach suggests only the willingness to believe in something – anything – greater than oneself. It invites each individual to characterize that power in whatever way seems reasonable to him or her.

It’s easy to see some psychological benefits from this change in thinking. The person who believes that at the deepest level all is simply chaos (or at worst, malevolent) is going to have a very different daily experience than one who believes that the mysteries of life are reasonably ordered (or even in one’s favor).

Along with a sense of well-being and growing trust, one last result slowly comes from a spiritual experience: an underlying and durable sense of gratitude – a state well-understood to be helpful in developing and maintaining mental stability. That’s one reason why all of the great spiritual traditions encourage lives of gratitude.

Of course, all of this is a process. It takes time, and effort, and perseverance. The challenges for the person in recovery from chemical dependency are very real – in some ways, more so than for the fiercest atheist or staunchest agnostic. But the payoff for simple willingness is nothing less than lifelong quality recovery – with true serenity.


As the manager of employer services for Serenity Lane, Jerry Gjesvold helps companies manage their drug-free workplace programs. For more information, go to www.serenitylane.org. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer.

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