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Sobriety as a Means to Spiritual Growth VS. Spiritual Growth as a Means to Maintain Sobriety: A Critical Look at Recovery Part 1

Using his life experience and doctrinal study Cortland has come to several thought provoking conclusions about recovery programs and spiritual growth. This week Cortland shares his background and introduces the faults he find with AA and other 12 step programs, and next week will share more about his personal experience with these programs. -Editor.

I would like to start this essay by stating that it took much longer than needed to complete it. I have been stabbed six times, set myself on fire, my mother committed suicide, and I suffered from alcohol addiction for many years, along with a number of other instances of trial and tribulation, and I have no problem writing about any of it with two exceptions. One is that of dealing with the aftermath of being stabbed. The other is that of my experiences with recovery programs and institutions. The reason why I have difficulty writing on this subject is that there is a lot of contempt and animosity for individuals who are considered experts on the subject of recovery along with certain of their beliefs about the recovery process. I do not wish to put forth a scathing account of my experiences because that would be useless, as well as contrary to doctrine. All I can do is look to the Lord and pray that he tempers my hostility (a hostility which has grown over my years of recovery).

When did I first come to the realization that I had a problem with alcohol? When I realized that I like the feeling of being intoxicated better than how it felt to be sober.

It was not that I did not like being sober, or had deep seated feelings that I did not want to acknowledge, I simply liked the way I felt when drinking better than I did the feeling of sobriety. We must not forget that alcohol is a mind altering substance, and how much more does it alter the mind of a 15 year old whose mind is not fully developed. I started drinking during my junior year of high school and shortly after my 21rst birthday I actually started the long journey toward abstinence in an attempt to ward off the inevitable, full blown alcoholism. Last July 15 was three years since I have had a drink. That may seem like a monumental feat for those familiar with an alcoholic life. For I am one who spent more than half of my life as an everyday habitual drinker while the last ten of those was a life completely consumed by strong drink. It is not the abstinence that is so important, but the fact that it has been more than 3 years since I have had even the slightest urge or desire to drink. Regardless of my emotional or psychological state, during rough times, dealing with the inevitable trials and tribulations of life, or even in a state of bliss and joy; I have had no desire to drink, not even in the slightest. All the cravings, compulsions and desires are gone. I have no “triggers” and I am able to enter any type of situation or environment and be free from even the remnants of substance abuse, without the haunt of past misery.

When I stated that the animosity toward recovery programs has grown, it is because the last time I had strong cravings for alcohol was after an experience with two individuals who I sought as sponsors in the AA program, one having more 30 years of sobriety while the other had 28. I will explain in more detail below.

The journey toward the state of complete relief of any desire to drink has been long, tedious, and intermingled with an abundance of setbacks, denials, and misguided endeavors. One paradox among the many is the fact that I now realize the journey toward lifelong sobriety actually started in the midst of my addiction. My journey toward sobriety actually started the day I feared that I would never be able to stop. The other paradox is that I believe that my descent into alcoholism was a matter of providence in the context of vastation - permissive indulgence and within it all, pure mercy.

I started to drink about the same time that I decided that there was no God, about the age of 15. As a matter of fact the things that led me to start drinking were the same things that led me to an atheist view of religion: my environment. Although God was spoken of with reverence in my household, we were by no means a religious family as we had no church that we attended and I can count the times I went to church during my childhood on one hand. As for teenage drinking, everyone’s environment is the cause of such, regardless of demographics, although there was not an abundance of drinking in my home. So when I say my environment caused both I am speaking of the environment outside of the home, with my peers in regard to drinking and the hypocrisy of many religious folks combined with the contradiction of Ghetto life, and a loving God. But this essay is not about alcoholism or my journey back to God so much as it is about recovery and how it relates to one’s vastation and ultimate reformation and regeneration. You see, at the age of about 22 I was foolish enough to want to know the truth yet had no idea that this endeavor had any spiritual significance as I believed that all genuine truth was of a secular nature and had absolutely nothing to do with God or religion.

Through ignorance within my own character I didn’t realize that my desire to know real truth stemmed from the goal of setting myself above my fellow man. In hindsight I realized that I was led to spiritual truth for one reason and one reason alone: I truly had some good use in mind. I wanted to develop the skill and ability to implement patterns and programs that might help others, albeit for personal gain and recognition.

So Providence took ahold of me and I was led to the Scriptures and to the fountain of New Church doctrine. One might think that an individual who was conscious of his drinking problem, who made attempts to stop, who was eventually led to the Writings (by Emanuel Swedenborg) would have no problem with at least moderating that behavior so as to not go deeper into the pit of alcoholism according to degrees/stages. This was not to be the case, and in fact it was quite contrary as I would continue to drink more and more until at last, after about six years of studying the Writings I would put them down almost altogether and spend the next six years with my “true love”, strong drink.

The love for intoxicating “water” became evident shortly after I turned to the Lord, when I attended a Bible study at a local non-denominational church and actually made a statement in the form of a question using Scripture to justify my drinking habits. I asked the minister if the fact that the Lord says that what one puts into the body does not defile but what comes out, was justification for the consumption of alcohol and thereby made it free of sin? The minister stated that the abuse of anything is what is sinful but the consumption of alcohol in moderation and not to drunkenness is not sin, in a rather loose sense of the term. Of course I already understood this to be truth but also knew that I was lying to myself because I had already reached the state of abuse as I had been drinking just prior to the Bible study. Throughout those years, as miserable as I was, I never turned my back on the Lord, nor did I say ‘why me Lord,’ because the Lord had revealed enough of the truth for me to know exactly why.

I lived contrary to the truth that I was given as a vessel and in turn I was let down into myself and my journey toward full blown addiction was a manifestation of self-love and love of the world. But it goes even deeper. One might say, yes, he has the “underlying causes” of self-centered egotistical nature that is essentially what defines and causes ones alcoholism. But keep in mind that my love for strong drink and path toward alcohol addiction existed prior to a fully developed sense of self.

The reality of alcohol addiction is in the fact that just like we have degrees of reformation and regeneration that are discrete, within the path to alcoholism there are also discrete degrees. I have heard stories from recovering alcoholics about how they were a drunk from the very first drink that they took and then and there they became addicted to strong drink. These individuals are the exception rather than the rule; they do not acknowledge the distinction between preference, habit, dependency, and addiction, all which come about in stages and degrees. In most instances the path to alcohol addiction goes through stages from social drinker, to habitual drinker, to dependency and finally addiction, where one gets to the point that he cannot function without alcohol in his system. And once the alcohol is perpetually in the system he begins to lose the will to function in all aspects of life. In this final stage lay the problem that I had dealing with recovery as I could not possibly do it of my own free will.

I will attempt to relate the flaws which I found to be counterproductive, along with a brief explanation, and then relate it further by means of personal experience.

The four fundamental flaws within spiritual/psychological recovery programs:

1. Your addiction is not in the bottle, it is in your head. It is due to underlying causes.

While partially true, this concept denies the fact that alcohol IS a mind altering substance that has a substantial effect on all physiological functions of the mind and body. When alcohol is abused, the substance of alcohol itself will cause one’s addiction to it. Furthermore, there is a difference between why one drinks, and why one becomes addicted to alcohol. All individuals have a reason for why they drink, many of them for the same “underlying causes” of those who become addicted, yet do not become addicted. Anyone who abuses alcohol habitually is going to become addicted to alcohol, not because of why they drink (cause of consumption), but because of the fact that alcohol itself is going to cause the body to become both physically and psychologically dependent. This will inevitably lead to addiction.

2. All physiological means to recovery are ignored or in many cases denied to be of any serious significance.

Taking the above into account it is evident that the things that alcohol has depleted within the body must be replenished in accord with abstinence as a primary means to recovery. Yes, there may be psychological underlying causes which may make pull one back to drink early in sobriety, but these must be taken into account in order. First the physical cravings, and need for alcohol must be removed to the extent that one can think clearly without his thoughts being bombarded by constant cravings, which will be exacerbated by continuous talk of alcoholism and its consequences (psychological mode of recovery through sharing one’s experience). It is a disservice to withhold from the person the understanding and extreme importance of diet, exercise, and proper sleep as a primary means to recovery, especially in the early stages of breaking the physical addiction.

3. All those who suffer from alcohol addiction are the same, which means the program to recovery is one size fits all.

We understand from the Lords infinity that no two people are alike. Yes, there are generals about addiction that are the same with everyone, but these issues are of an exterior nature. The fact that internally everyone is different is actually supported by the emphasis on underlying causes in the psychological programs and yet the programs come back to declare everyone the same who suffers from addiction. Underlying causes are of an interior nature and although they appear to be the same in the eyes of those similarly situated, or those trained to spot them, no one actually does the same thing for the exact same reason. The one size fits all concepts are counterproductive, simply because each individual is actually different internally.

4. You will always be an alcoholic no matter how long you maintain sobriety or change your ways.

This concept implies that your life will have to revolve around the ideal of alcohol addiction and its consequences even in sobriety. You are stigmatized and can never become a new created individual. Not even God can free you from the label. You are an alcoholic even when you no longer have any inclination do drink, even when you lose all desire, even when you overcome the character flaws that supposedly caused your alcoholism, even when alcohol has no meaning whatsoever in regard to your life and existence, you are still an alcoholic. That is what you are, and you can never be free of the stigma.

Although my experiences revealed to me that there were many fundamental truths in these recovery programs, they were tainted by contradictions at both the individual and institutional levels. I would also like to say that the Lords providence allowed and guided me toward recovery programs. In this way and in the grand scheme of things they were indeed of great use in the service of my personal recovery, primarily by means of individuals, who sincerely practiced the principles in all of their affairs, to the best of their ability. But my heart goes out to those who do not have the advantage of the knowledge and understanding of New Church doctrine, especially for those who were as I, in my youth, completely ignorant of God, as well as anything spiritual. The Lord for reasons that are still beyond my comprehension, led me to the Writings, even as a problem drinker, and actually led me to accept them as Divine truth, in the years leading up to those of being consumed by alcohol. In other words, I did not need a spiritual program as a means to stop drinking; I simply needed to stop drinking so I could live the spiritual program that had already been revealed.

I say that my heart goes out to many because “God as you understand Him” is one thing, but the idea of God as some type of inanimate object or anything of nature as a means to symbolize a “higher power” inevitably leads to no god at all. This in turn leads to the inability to practice spiritual principles in all one’s affairs. In fact my many years of experience in recovery programs that claim to accentuate the spiritual has shown that a conglomeration of long term sober individuals actually are opposite to said principle in regard to fruit, while others practice them as a means to personal merit, and status within the program. When one “understands” the program of AA to be his higher power, (the case with the majority of those who have a problem with a living God), they actually take the men and women of AA as a higher power, which lacks any spiritual substance and changes a supposedly spiritual program into one of worshiping men/women. But now I am on the verge of a condemning tangent so let me continue on by sharing some of my experiences with the reader, and since these programs are one-size-fits-all it will suffice to say that these experiences are not unique to my particular situation.

It must be noted why I listed the above as fundamental flaws. The program of AA is often essentially misunderstood by those outside of the program as well as those who are within its walls. It may appear that the program itself consists in attending meetings on a regular basis, fellowshipping with other alcoholics for moral support, and sharing the stories, trials and tribulations of a common addiction. AA in theory and protocol is a spiritual program and just like that of the church, meetings and the traditions that go along with it are the external practices of the program that have been derived and manifest as the group grew into a worldwide organization. Even the concept of sponsorship came along in later years to accommodate the growth of the program. The spiritual essence of the program is not within the walls, stories, and fellowship of the traditional meetings, but within the spiritual practices and precepts of the 12 Steps. As a matter of documented fact, the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are directly out of the Bible reworded by one of its founders, Bill Wilson. The steps are as follows:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

There is one thing that is universally true about these steps and that is that every individual of sound mind needs to live the steps as written here, only replacing alcohol with whatever particular sin, or spiritual defect ails him. It does not matter if a person suffers from alcoholism or if strong drink has never touched his lips, we all need the 12 steps in some form as they are in exact accordance with reformation and regeneration (with a few interpretational exceptions). Even with the naked eye many will be able to examine the steps and see why I listed the flaws above, but it would fill many more pages for this particular document to go into detail. It will suffice to say that these fundamental flaws are “derived doctrine” that may hinder many individuals in working the steps in freedom. In part two of this essay personal experience will attempt to show the contradictions and flaws in practice, with the ultimate goal of reconciliation through edification.

Cortland Bell

I now live (to the best of my ability) what I learn. I do have goals, plans, dreams, and aspirations but as the Lord is my witness I have no idea what His Providence has in store for the rest of my life. What I do know is that I am willing and able to follow His will whatever it maybe.