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By Joanna Copeland

What is spirituality and why is it part of recovery?

A couple of years ago a client described his alcoholism as a “soul hole.”   This term has stayed with me because it is so reflective of the lives of people struggling with addiction. Addiction is not only a biopsychosocial disease it is also a spiritual malady where people lose connection to their core values and beliefs, their interests, natural talents and unique abilities, their ability to have faith in something or someone.

They forget they are part of a family or a larger community. They forget they are blessed by the beauty and connectedness of nature and the stars beyond. They often feel lost, alone, afraid, hopeless, helpless and empty inside, missing something that they have tried to fill up with alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, money, a fancy car or a high-profile job.

That never works thus the bad feelings grow bigger and deeper. One of the main focuses of recovery is helping clients fill that hole with meaningful things lest the addictive behaviours creep back in.

Spiritual wholeness is something that we hope clients can begin to work towards during their treatment, knowing it is a long term process. That can come through spirituality or recognition of a higher power but so many clients have no idea what that these terms actually mean and why they would be important for recovery.

It’s not about religion

Many clients believe spirituality must be about religion which can be a turn off, quite frankly. When the term higher power is used, many clients make an immediate connection to the idea of God which makes them bristle with feelings of anger or alienation. Some have painful memories connected to a religious upbringing where they were shamed or the message being espoused did not fit with their ideas about the world.

When a new client sits with me for the first time, the topic of spirituality usually comes up and they worry that we are going to try and push God or religion onto them. That opens a door to a conversation about what spirituality or a higher power might mean to them specifically and why we talk about those concepts in treatment. No, spirituality does not have to mean God and it does not automatically mean religion. It can be defined in many ways and there is no one true answer, only what feels right to the individual.

Who or what is God?

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about God as “anything that can pull your face out of the dirt.” Alcoholics Anonymous talks about God as “Good Orderly Direction.” Another former client once stated that, to him, God meant “Getting Outdoors” where he felt peaceful, competent and connected to the world around him. In “The Untethered Soul” author Michael Singer writes about a spiritual experience as feeling a connection to oneself.

What helps you to connect with your values? Who or what helps you feel good in your own skin?

A recent client arrived in treatment thinking that spirituality meant something akin to seeing a burning bush and felt frustrated and disappointed day after day, believing he was not “getting” spirituality. Within a few weeks he came to understand spirituality as the feeling he got when he walked into an AA room and felt accepted and understood. He saw AA members as a strong source of support he could turn to for help and guidance in a time of need; his higher power.

The higher power

We all have higher powers and may not realize it. When it’s time to prepare my taxes my accountant deals with all the paperwork and financial lingo that I just don’t relate to. When I am overwhelmed by chronic pain my massage therapist eases symptoms so my quality of life improves. When I feel frustrated as the parent of a teenager my counsellor listens and help me find some much needed perspective. They are all external resources that I can draw on for help and support and absolutely qualify as higher powers. At the end of our conversation about spirituality most new clients feel relieved and open to the idea of finding a meaning of spirituality that makes sense to them.

Soul hole to soul whole

Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Treatment is the beginning of that marathon which slowly unfolds into a new, more balanced life. There will be days when each step feels painful and self-doubt and fear cry out for an easy button. It is in those moments that a higher power or spiritual practice can ease suffering, restore sanity and serve as a reminder of what matters and the power that each of us has, but often doubts. Recovery may start with the emptiness of the “soul hole,” but blessedly, it moves in the direction of “soul whole.”

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