Did you see the study that came out not long ago showing that feeling a lack of meaning in life — an important part of spirituality — is associated with drug and alcohol abuse as well as anxiety and depression? In particular, the researchers at Florida Atlantic University who did the study found that having an “insecure attachment style” (meaning difficulty feeling connected to others, often owing to a lack of connection from childhood) and how a person feels about the purpose and meaning of their life were related to depression, a known risk factor for substance abuse.
Twelve-step programs have long been associated with spirituality, of course, but the folks who led this study concluded by suggesting that treatment programs might want to consider other spiritual dimensions — like the meaning of life and our purpose as individuals — and put in place support for those “rather than only stressing the perceived closeness to God,” said Tammy Malloy, LCSW, chief clinical officer of Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches and one of the study authors, in a press release. Malloy and her fellow researchers went on to say that programs would do well to actually encourage clients’ creativity while in treatment to help them to discover a sense of purpose in life, even above working to improve their relationships. I couldn’t agree more. Granted, I’m no scientist, just a chronic relapser with a history of deep depression and an insecure attachment style. And I understand why feeling connected “to a power greater than yourself” would be important. It allows you to have faith, courage and feel secure in a life that is at best unpredictable and frightening. A higher power is a lot like a mommy or daddy who’s always available and never abandons you.
Where I Feel the Universe
But how to actually connect with a higher power seems quite nebulous in 12-step programs. Prayer? Meditation? A spiritual experience of the “educational variety,” to quote psychologist William James? Sure, some people seem to just stumble upon their “white light” experience and have that spooky “touched by Jesus” look in their eyes. That has never been me. You want to know where I feel/sense God (or the Universe, if you prefer, and I do)? When I’m in the creative flow. That’s when I feel connected to something bigger. Creativity is my transcendental experience. That is my prayer. And it is also the thing that gives me purpose. The means to express my hardships. Turn my hay into gold. Help somebody feel less alone, inspire them, or at the very least amuse them. Before I really settled into my writing — and I do realize I’m blessed to help other addicts in writing about addiction — I had no purpose in life aside from feeling “good,” or at least numb. My addiction was my job and it was 24/7.
Twelve-step programs like AA have a built-in purpose for those in recovery: to help another alcoholic. That’s supposed to be your main purpose in life once you get sober. Don’t get me wrong; I am all for being of service. It is the key to getting out of yourself if hard narcotics, 13-hour naps or anonymous sex are no longer viable options. And in giving to somebody else, you get to feel useful. You get to play the role of the doctor instead of the eternal patient. It is well-documented that helping others boosts self-esteem, a sense of belonging and can even trigger neurotransmitters like oxytocin and vasopressin, giving the doer what psychologists call “a helper’s high.” (Wait, did somebody say “high”?)
But there are also pathological amounts of altruism and co-dependency. I’ve met plenty of people who feel depressed when they aren’t helping another alcoholic and actually consider leaving the program and using again when they don’t have any sponsees. Personally, I’m hesitant to have all my service be based in helping another struggling alkie or junkie. I wouldn’t suggest it unless you work in treatment, and even then, those people have a high burn-out rate. Alcoholics and addicts can be…well, exhausting.
But hey, you can help the homeless. You can help your friends. You can help the elderly or abandoned dogs. Who cares if they’re not in the addiction club? It’s important to get out of the recovery bubble because that’s where real life happens. In my experience, being a nanny to the sober living manger’s newborn baby for a year was the hardest and most rewarding service I’ve ever performed (well, aside from my court-ordered community service; both were exhausting and involved feces).
More to the point, you can help yourself. Finding and following my passion has given me direction, a purpose, a goal to work toward. I’m on my path now. I’m invested. I don’t have the time, energy or interest to allow my addiction to hogtie me and take me off into the woods again. And my main identification, the label I cling to now, is writer, not drug addict anymore.