Addiction has been referred to as a disease of mind, body and spirit. The role and affect of mind and body are relatively self evident, whereas the spiritual dimension seems more difficult to conceptualize. Yet, if it is believed that alcoholism or other addiction does indeed affect all aspects of an addict's life, then it is reasonable to conclude that all aspects must be addressed in treatment if an effective recovery is to achieved and maintained.

The Alcoholic's Anonymous program of recovery provides a context to examine spirituality as it relates to addiction as it is based upon spiritual principles. Empirical evidence substantiates the relationship between faith, spirituality, and addiction recovery. Significantly greater spirituality, defined as a "positive relationship with self, others, and with God or the universe, as evidenced by tolerance, gratitude, release, and humility" has been found to be higher in those successful in recovery compared to those who continued to relapse.

Existential issues of meaninglessness, death, isolation and freedom are conceptualized as being at the root of addiction and central to the philosophy and subsequent success of the Minnesota Model. According to Viktor Frankl, humans are basically striving to find and fulfill meaning and purpose in life. One can actualize only by fulfilling a meaning in the world and relating to and being directed by something or someone other than oneself. The experience of a sense of futility and emptiness, a feeling of meaninglessness, an inner void, is referred to as "existential vacuum" and can lead to addiction. The alcoholic lives in an existential vacuum; life is seen as empty, absurd and fruitless. The active addict or alcoholic lives life in a state of primitive denial against the reality of death, another of the existential issues of life. This failure to confront the inevitability of death is, at least in part, responsible for the addict's spiritual problem. According to Frankl, meaning can be gained from experiencing even negative aspects of existence including death. Through their addiction, many experience the reality of death.

Additionally, existential isolation plagues addicted individuals. This involves the realization that a gap exists between one's self and others and that we are uniquely alone in the world. Most alcoholics are conflicted about isolation and, by contrast, about intimacy and love. A crucial aspect of recovery, then, is the acceptance of feelings of separateness and individualization while developing a capacity to love and share.

The healthy, growing person faces freedom by building bridges with others to make contributions to the world. Unhealthy mechanisms to avoid the anxiety and responsibility that freedom brings include compulsive acts such as drinking or drug use and denial of responsibility.

It is suggested then that addicted individuals have compulsively denied and displaced responsibility for their lives to avoid the anxiety of free choice. They become masters of rationalization, projection and avoidance. It is only through existentially feeling the fear that the addict can begin to recognize life's alone-ness and take responsibility for his or her own destiny. Through this experience of surrender, the alcoholic gains the freedom to not-drink, as opposed to giving up the freedom to drink.

It is through surrender, acceptance of the disease, and sharing with others, such as in the fellowship of Twelve Step programs, that the addict finds meaning to his or her life, learns to take responsibility for life choices, and achieves freedom from that which trapped them for so long. The adage, 'surrender to win', takes on a meaning in recovery that can and does change lives.

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Author's Bio: 

John Derry, B.Sc.Phm., M.A.
Founder and Director,
A Home Away Retreat Inc.