There remains some degree of controversy about whether this process necessitates a spiritual awakening of some sort. But as was pointed out by a fellow contributor to Proof, the author Susan Cheever, no less an authority than the psychologist Carl Jung certainly believed so. And after a decade and a half of sobriety now so do I.
It seems to me that if Americans could understand any addiction, it would be an addiction to alcohol, which is held in almost as high a regard as food in this culture. We’re talking about a substance that must be present at virtually all of the significant passages of our lives: Your birth was probably celebrated with a drink; your death may be. In between, benchmark birthdays, “firsts” such as jobs, raises, homes; marriage, your own children, getting a promotion. Getting fired. All call for a drink, or two, and it seems almost uncivilized not to. In fact, some theological scholars have speculated that wine became part of religious services because the mood alteration it brought on made it easier for the faithful to pray to an unseen deity. Something can’t get much more important than bringing you closer to God.
But our condition continues to be almost pointedly misunderstood by many in what I call the “social drinking majority.” I have pondered the reasons for this pretty much every day for the 16 years that I have been sober, and am still mystified by it. As a rule, Americans tend to be very indulgent of overindulgence. We give a lot of lip service to “eating right,” but that hasn’t stopped two thirds of us from becoming overweight. We still make a lot of noise about being a sexually responsible and moral people, but we continue to have a 50 percent divorce rate and support a multi-billion dollar pornography industry.
It seems that the social drinking majority saves all its moralizing for alcoholics, about whom it ignores the increasingly irrefutable evidence that we suffer from a condition that is, at least in part, nothing more than a chronic disease like diabetes, and choose to adjudge us as morally inferior instead. Perhaps they’re getting back at us for “spoiling the party” for the rest of them by giving drinking a bad name. Or perhaps by labeling us as morally inferior, they are able to feel themselves morally superior—something that’s hard to do in these morally ambiguous times. While the image of those of us who manage to sober up has improved quite a bit since the temperance movement, we continue to be considered “lesser” for having had the problem in the first place.
All of this is kind of moot, though, since regardless of the source of an addict’s problem, it remains his responsibility to get over it. And so, in that sense, his recovery, if not his disease, is a moral matter.
My own recovery did not require me to become a born-again Christian or a Bible thumper of any sort. But sobering up—and staying that way—did involve a certain tectonic shift in the psyche that had nothing to do with willpower or common sense. In my experience, there are three reasons for this: First, the process of becoming addicted to alcohol involves a kind of twisted leap of faith in itself—coming to believe that all answers and all happiness lay in one more drink—so it only stands to reason that to escape alcohol’s clutches, one must take a similar size leap in the other direction. Second, for me anyway, trying to “reason” my way out of my addiction didn’t work. Talk to any recovering alcoholic and he will tell you about how many times he tried to stop or “manage” his drinking via the left side of the brain and failed. Indeed, it is the inability to control one’s drinking—even in the face of countless rational reasons to quit—that distinguishes the alcoholic from the merely abusive drinker. Finally, under the circumstances, I decided that I had no choice but to try the spiritual route to recovery.
This involved the deployment of two time-honored spiritual tools: surrender to and faith in a power greater than oneself — the often-invoked higher power. For me, surrender—as intimidating a word as it is—was relatively simple. After all, any drunk who decides to go to rehab has made a surrender of a certain measure; he’s saying, “I can’t lick this myself.”
Placing my faith and sobriety in a higher power to help me with this endeavor was a bit more complicated. It’s not that I’m an atheist; I’m believer enough. It’s just that I’d never had occasion to apply my faith in this specific a way—that is to say, expecting a favorable resolution (losing the compulsion to drink) just for the asking of a favor from some unseen force.
It all felt quite awkward, and frankly, I wasn’t sure I could summon the requisite faith to fully engage the process. But desperation is the mother of many a good recovery, and desperate I was. So I did what I was told: I put blinders on, invested my faith in a higher power and set about the grunt work of recovery—the self examination and soul searching, the forming of a clean and sober and ethical self—with the hope that sooner or later, my compulsion to drink would disappear.
Ironically, it was the willingness to do anything to sober up—a most pragmatic strategy—that was the linchpin of my spiritual leap of faith. And though there was no single moment when I was “struck sober” in the way one hears some alcoholics claim, slowly but surely the obsession with the stuff slipped out of mind. I wouldn’t call it a miracle, but I would say that, as long as I’ve been sober, I still can’t entirely explain it and honestly, it still kind of surprises me that it worked as well as it did.
But I can double-vouch for its efficacy. Five years after I quit drinking back in 1993, I quit smoking using the same modus operandi. In some ways, tossing away the butts was harder than quitting the sauce. But this time I not only had faith; I had confidence. I not only believed I could quit. I knew I would.