Addiction – to alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc. – affects millions of people directly, and does collateral damage to millions more in their families and communities. But recovery from addiction is real, possible – and even graced.
While addicts cut themselves off from others out of pride or shame or denial, recovery starts with the simple, if painful, recognition that one cannot survive alone. Recovery is a journey toward God and others, and a willingness to be vulnerable and let God and others get close as well.
Letting Go and Letting God
“Recovery is about recognizing that, alone, you are powerless to solve the problem. To receive the grace you need to recover, you must admit you need help from something greater than yourself.” — Phil Fox Rose
The first two steps of the 12-step recovery journey are often summarized as “Let go and let God.” In other words, addicts are asked to admit to themselves that they are not in control of their addiction or their lives, and surrender that control to what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “a Higher Power.” Letting go, difficult as that can be, is often easier than letting God. Real recovery requires establishing—or reestablishing—an active, intimate, ongoing relationship with God.
Many people recognize that addiction has been an inadequate substitute for that relationship. “When people ask me what I was before I became a Catholic, I say I was an alcoholic,” says essayist Heather King, who chronicled her addiction and recovery journey (and the conversion story woven into it) in two memoirs, “Parched” and “Redeemed.”
“I don’t mean that facetiously,” King explains. “I was raised in the Congregational Church back in New England, but from the age of 13, drinking was my God. I was willing to sacrifice everything for it: career, family, money, health, reputation, my life, my soul.” King describes what she believes to be the origin of addiction: “My theory is that all addiction is at bottom a misplaced search for God: for connection, for meaning, for relief from the deep sense of exile with which every human being seems to have been born.”
Paul Sofranko, author of “Stations of the Cross for Alcoholics,” agrees. “I have read, and I tend to believe,” he says, “that addiction is a ‘hole in the soul’ that we seek to fill. There are probably other reasons why people are addicts and alcoholics, but…regardless of the cause, I think it also involves a search for God to solve the emptiness that the cause creates in the soul. The need is initially satisfied by an inordinate attraction to actions or substances. While fulfilling at first, and perhaps even for years, eventually it is realized through suffering that the ‘hole in the soul’ just cannot be satisfied by drugs and alcohol.”
“And so addiction does get in the way of a relationship with God,” Sofranko continues. “It redirects you away from Him by providing a false substitute for that which can truly fulfill you. St. Augustine said, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.’”
But recognizing the “God-shaped hole” in our restless hearts is just the beginning of recovery. A healthy relationship with God—marked by regular prayer, participation in the sacraments, Adoration, and other attention to our spiritual connection— is vitally important.
“The problem is spiritual, and so is the answer,”says Phil Fox Rose, a blogger who writes of his own recovery journey. “If you are an alcoholic or addict, being spiritually unfit can be fatal. If not literally fatal then, as in my case, a living death— one definition of Hell is being alive and active in this world, feeling separated from God. And I spent years there. But today I live—and have for some time now—free, awake, fully alive, vital.”
The Amazing Power of Helping
“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Connecting or reconnecting with God is only one lane of the recovery road. There’s also the thirst for reconnection with others, especially family members and friends who have been injured by their loved one’s addictions. Rebuilding personal relationships takes practice and patience. Depending on the severity of the estrangement, reconciliation may take years—and may not ever be possible. The pain of broken relationships puts extra stress on early recovery. But one simple thing can make an amazing difference in staying sober, regaining empathy, and finding joy in community.
That one thing? Helping someone else. Service— whether it is mowing a neighbor’s lawn, driving someone to a doctor’s appointment, volunteering in a soup kitchen, or, as many people in recovery do, supporting other addicts on the recovery journey— has a remarkable power to fight relapses.
Case Western University researcher Maria Pagano has the statistics to prove it. Her studies with recovering addicts found that reaching out to help others bolsters positive self-identity and reinforces a sense of purpose.
Stephen Post, author of “The Hidden Gifts of Helping,” says, “When you are involved in helping others, it blocks off destructive emotions and impulses. You can’t be ruminating or feel hostile and bitter if you’re feeling moved by helping someone else.”
Victor, a teen in recovery from addiction, put Maria Pagano’s findings in his own words. “Before becoming sober, I was miserable, angry, and upset,” he says. “There were only about 15 minutes a day where I didn’t want to die.” Then, at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Victor made connections with others, and that made a difference. “Something as simple as showing someone how to make a pot of coffee and asking them to come back can be a huge part of sobriety,” Victor explains.
“If you help someone up the hill,” a familiar recovery aphorism goes, “you get closer yourself.” Service to others has a ripple effect that reinforces our personal journey and gives us hope. “I get to watch guys get better—there’s nothing better than that,” Victor says. “Watching a family get back together again—it’s the greatest gift.”
Building a Different Life, Together
“Recovery always happens in relationships, never on its own.” — “Scott,” recovering addict
In 2016, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps capped a career of unprecedented appearances on the medal stand and a string of broken records in the pool. Yet just a few years before, Phelps had hit rock bottom. Suspended from the U.S. team for having been photographed using marijuana, Phelps fell into a dark spiral that resulted in his second DUI arrest in 10 years. When he agreed to enter rehab, Phelps told ESPN, “I had no selfesteem. No self-worth. I thought the world would just be better off without me.”
A friend then gave him a copy of Pastor Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose-Driven Life.” Phelps was so moved by the book’s message that he began “preaching” it to others in rehab. The book, Phelps says, “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.” Reconnecting with God and finding an unselfish purpose—being the best father to his young son — has helped Phelps stay sober and move toward mending broken family relationships. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the crowds saw a different Michael Phelps, a man who was focused yet relaxed, surrounded by family, joyful.
“The core of what’s going to make someone achieve lasting sobriety is that they’re able to build a life for themselves that’s so much better than it was in addiction, that they can’t imagine going back,” says Austin Eubanks. As a teen, Eubanks was a witness to the Columbine High School shootings. The trauma he never dealt with blossomed quickly into an addiction to prescription drugs. After four attempts at rehab, Eubanks finally found a different life in helping others. He now works with other recovering addicts.
On the journey of recovery, building a better life means more than just avoiding the temptation to use drugs or alcohol. It means seeking true freedom, making positive choices, and engaging fully in life instead of fleeing it. Just take one day (or minute, or second) at a time, in good times and tough times. And do it in relationship with God and with the people you’re serving. That’s the best of road maps for recovery.
“It’s as hard to give up the drink as it is to raise the dead to life again. But both are possible and even easy for Our Lord. We have only to depend on Him.” – Venerable Matt Talbot, invoked for help with sobriety
Tips for Staying Connected with God and Others in Recovery:
1. Cultivate a regular spiritual practice. Formal or informal, quiet prayer or liturgical celebration, the important thing is to make your connection with God part of every day.
2. Connect with Catholics (or people from your own faith tradition) in recovery. Knowing people who speak your faith language helps. Explore resources in your parish or diocese, or connect online with the Calix Society, http://www.calixsociety.org, an organization of Catholics in recovery who follow A.A.’s 12-step
3. Get in the practice of helping. No day goes by without opportunities to reach out and lighten someone else’s load. Be on the lookout for ways you can serve. And learn to ask for and receive help, too.
4. Take advantage of the Sacrament of Penance and Eucharistic Adoration. Confession helps us take inventory, be accountable, and learn to accept mercy. Adoration is quality time with God.
5. Set yourself an unselfish purpose, and be grateful for every positive choice that helps you fulfill it.
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