by Jim Stimson
Many people who quit drinking or using think all they need to do is participate in a treatment program and show up at a supportive recovery meeting now and again. They assume that all will be well … that everything has been “fixed.” This is rarely ever the case.
What I’ve learned through 38 years of my own recovery, and in working with hundreds of clients, is that you have to seriously commit to a journey of personal and spiritual growth. Recovery is not just about abstinence, it is about doing the work it takes to be able to live a life that is “happy, joyous, and free,” as promised in 12-step literature.
In order to reach and maintain that place, addicts must address what is spiritually broken. The “hole” we have felt in the center of our being is a spiritual void that we tried to fill with alcohol, drugs, work, gambling, sex, food, or whatever we could. These substances or activities might have temporarily masked the emptiness, but they didn’t fix what was broken. That void we all know can be healed only when it is filled with spiritual sustenance.
How can we do that? I believe the key to healing in recovery is to identify and practice different values (principles that we stand for) and virtues (qualities of character) – or what we’ve called “spiritual principles for recovery.” The work that addicts need to do in recovery comes down to overcoming “character defects.” These are the behaviors and personality traits we take on as a result of our chaotic upbringing and/or our addiction(s). They include such things as self-centeredness, selfishness, dishonesty, being manipulative, being emotionally unavailable, getting angry and frustrated easily, the inability to make sound decisions, having poor social behaviors, and more.
We can turn these negative behaviors and traits around if we make a conscious effort to work with different spiritual principles on a daily basis. In this article I’d like to give three examples of applying spiritual principles to recovery.
The first one is surrender. Surrendering in recovery means we admit we are powerless over our addiction and we give ourselves over to a Higher Power (HP). Addicts need to be open to receiving guidance from something greater than they are, just as their addiction is greater than them. That’s why in recovery we talk about the fact that God could be a “group of drunks or druggies” because the group can provide the support, encouragement, and guidance an addict needs. But what has worked for me, and continues to work for me, is surrendering to the God of my understanding (or HP as I like to say) on a daily basis.
The road to recovery starts with that first act of surrender, but it is also an ongoing process of surrendering our ego and placing our trust in HP as we encounter challenges in life. In our addictive living we let our ego control us and so we became controlling and manipulative. But when we can “let go and let God” we learn to trust life to unfold in perfect harmony and no longer need to control everything.
Another critical spiritual principle is honesty. Active addicts are notorious for lying, manipulating, and telling only partial truths. In order to achieve and maintain full recovery, addicts must learn to work continually at telling the truth at all times to all people. All personal interactions need to be clean and clear. The fellowships of recovery teach about the need for “rigorous honesty,” not just “cash-register” honesty, which means having the courage to tell the truth every time.
Addicts become such masters of deceit and denial during their using days that learning to be truthful takes a conscientious effort. To be completely honest with others, you must first learn to be completely honest with yourself. When we shine the light of truth on difficult situations, we are released from our anxieties and fears. The energy it takes to keep secrets and tell lies is much greater than the energy it takes to be open and honest!
A third spiritual principle is one that anyone involved in a recovery fellowship will know well and that is the notion of being in service. Those who have participated in a recovery fellowship for a while understand that we have an obligation – a spiritual obligation – to help those who are new to the recovery process. The more we continue to help others, the more we deepen our own recovery. Addicts have a history of being self-centered and selfish. When we work with and help others, we can’t help but learn to become more caring and compassionate in the process.
But there are potential pitfalls to helping others. It is easy to get carried away by always being the Good Samaritan, and end up with “big shoulderitis.” If you’ve been rescued from living al life of hell in your addiction, it’s natural to feel a strong debt of gratitude and want to rush out to help someone else in trouble. However, you must ensure you are not doing for others what they need to be doing for themselves. With that said, being in service is the best thing we can do to experience true joy and fulfillment in life. No matter what else we achieve, the quality of our life will come down to the quality of our contribution.