Alcohol and Spirituality – The Human Person
Updated: Jul 16
Spiritual well-being has an important role to play in recovery from alcoholism. That is because spirituality, when properly understood in its broadest sense, is integral to self-identity and self-worth. Spiritual awareness is part of what it means to be a human person. The role of spirituality in recovery is increasingly recognised in alcohol rehab treatment therapies. My own spiritual journey started with psychotherapy in rehab, and led to thirty years of studying the human condition.
Human beings are a composite of body, mind and spirit, or soul if you prefer. We know that we need to look after both the body and the mind to be healthy. But do we pay enough attention to our spiritual health? What do we mean by spirituality and how does this relate to the alcoholic in recovery?
Philosophers have long recognised that what is distinctive of human beings is the ability to use our capacity for reasoning when we think and act in the world. We share sensory perception – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell – with the other animals. But we also have self-awareness, the ability to reflect on our situation in self-consciousness. The ability to transcend ourselves, in some sense, both individually and in communion with others, is what we mean by spirituality.
The modern world has re-discovered the Greek philosophers’ concept of well-being. We all desire to be happy. We are happy, or “living well”, when we direct our desires and act in accordance with our true nature as human beings. Our well-being depends on our spiritual health. Spiritual awareness gives us a sense of belonging in the world. It is how we find value, meaning and purpose on a shared life journey in hope with others. Spirituality is a process of discovery. It is about openness to new experience, acceptance of things we cannot change and the courage to act when we can. (I needed courage to walk down the street again and go back to work). Ultimately, it is about finding out who we really are and what matters to us.
In contrast, the descent into alcoholism is a turn inward away from others and the world. The fall into blackouts and dependency undermines the alcoholic’s rational capacity. The alcoholic creates and inhabits another parallel reality. Rather than find self-worth through relationship to others and the world around us, the alcoholic becomes enslaved by a mind-altering substance. The obsession to drink overcomes commitment to work, family, and friends, whether one is a so-called functioning alcoholic or not. The desire or craving to get drunk becomes overriding.
This compulsion fractures relationships, undermines our self-identity in relation to others and is ultimately self-destructive. The alcoholic is not unaware of the damage being done. It is devastating to realise the loss of control, the inability to turn back, and the impact this is having, not least on one’s own health. Loss of self is living in despair.
Crisis, however experienced (the personal “rock bottom” of the user), provides a potential turning point toward recovery. But this is a situation of both vulnerability and opportunity. Being sober, perhaps after alcohol detox, and entering treatment initially heightens the sensitivity of the alcoholic in a form of awakening. I recall that feeling of being wide awake. It was like stepping into bright sunlight and I have never forgotten an almost strange awareness of colour.
The alcoholic is vulnerable at this stage because he is still locked into self-interest. He is more aware than ever of his illness. He is frightened. Therapy is perhaps questioning his deep self, his history, and the psychological background to his behaviour. The easiest solution to the discomfort and fear is to flee back into drinking. That is why alcohol rehab treatments pay so much attention to craving and the risk of relapse. I was paralysed by fear after brief hospitalisation, quite literally struck down by panic attacks.
The turning point also provides an opportunity for healing, however, for transformation of the mind, and a path to lasting recovery. For this to be effective, we need attention to body, mind and spirit. Alcohol treatment has many aspects but needs to bring about a spiritual awakening to encourage the alcoholic to turn from inward self-obsession to outward personal growth. Treatment needs to encourage openness for the alcoholic to find a sense of self-worth, and his place in the world as a human being.
How do we start this journey of spiritual awakening? Alcohol rehab treatment shows empathy and unconditional regard for the suffering addict to stimulate a spark of spiritual awareness. First, the alcoholic should be encouraged to admit openly his loss of control and express a genuine desire to stop drinking. Second, he should be brought to acknowledge that he is unable to get well on his own and needs support from a power beyond himself. Third, he needs to show contrition for the suffering his actions have brought to others. Fourth, he needs constantly to reflect on his recovery, perhaps through meditation (mindfulness). Finally, he should be encouraged to engage with fellow sufferers, to nurture love for others and to re-discover his self-worth.
These structures of confession, repentance, and mindfulness or prayer are found in organised religions. These share common beliefs and practises which provide for the regular habit of actions to support spiritual growth. But religion need not be a barrier to atheist and agnostic alcoholics. The broad concept of spirituality and appeal to a source of spiritual health or power outside of ourselves, however understood, is found in various psychotherapies and in the long-standing 12-step programme of mutual help groups.
For anybody embarking on this path, the one single piece of advice that I give is to read about, or listen to, the stories of those in recovery. This is the start of finding your true self in others and asking yourself – wouldn’t you like to have what they’ve got?
Spirituality encourages new ways of thinking and acting in the world, helping the alcoholic to build lasting recovery. It is about stepping from darkness into light. In my case, it was about standing up and walking out of a dark room into a new life. In putting the precepts into practise, the sufferer is transformed to find new enjoyment in life, to become truly a person to love and to be loved in the fellowship of other human beings.
*Andrew Bevan is a voluntary mentor. He is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for more than 20 years. He has worked in international finance for more than 40 years and is currently a partner of an asset management company in London. Following treatment, he developed an interest in psychotherapy and psychology. He subsequently studied philosophy and theology. He holds a PhD in Economics from City University, London and a PhD in Theology from Kings College, London.