Spirituality and the 12 Steps

By Patrick Hawkins

Many addiction experts and people in recovery believe that reconnecting with a sense of spirituality is crucial to maintaining long-term recovery. But what kind of spirituality are we talking about and how do we reconnect with it? 

What does spirituality even mean? Participation in an established religion? Praying to God? Many people equate spirituality with religious dogma and have serious reservations about the latter. Religion is seen as “not cool,” and faith as a weakness. They may perceive God as an incomprehensible deity insisting on archaic rules. They might even be mad at God for not providing the life they have imagined. Maybe they were made to participate in religious rituals they didn’t really understand or cared about. 

A Counter-Religion

Let’s take a step back here and talk about addiction. Was your first intoxication perhaps a quasi-religious experience, full of euphoria that didn’t need any dogma or theological explanation? Did drug-and-alcohol misuse over time become your religion? 

To some extent, using illicit drugs and alcohol may provide a similar experience as religious faith. What do I mean by that? Substance use can induce feelings of euphoria akin to religious ecstasy. For instance, both alcohol and cocaine affect the brain by increasing serotonin levels in specific areas. This neurotransmitter is sometimes called the “happiness” chemical because it contributes to well-being and happiness.

Substance use also has some of the trappings of religious observance. It features symbols and paraphernalia. Preparing a fix is one of its rituals and the bar one of its altars. Finally, it even offers a kind of perverted congregation: the community of fellow alcoholics and drug users, seemingly the only people who get what this kind of worship is all about. 

It’s Complicated!

The pseudo-religion of addictive substance use is complicated and so is real religion but this correlation between addiction and religion creates an opening for the spirituality of recovery. If people who misuse drugs and alcohol are really chasing a spiritual component missing from their lives, this quest can be redirected to healthier methods in recovery. They only have to realize that—unbeknownst to them—they have been practicing a type of faith already. 

That is why the spiritual aspect must not be neglected in addiction treatment. People in recovery need to find a way to reconnect with the Cosmos, but that is a complicated endeavor and everybody’s path is different. 

Spirituality may mean different things to different people but unless people with addiction can achieve a complete psychic change, there is little hope for recovery. Spirituality is about connecting with all of creation, not about memorizing religious dogma. If it feels too complicated then we have to simply!

Twelve Steps

One way to simplify your approach to spirituality in recovery is following a 12-Step program. 

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The surrender required in Step 1 is the first step to spiritual growth, but roadblocks may quickly appear at this stage, such as thinking of surrender as weakness or having an unrealistic understanding of what constitutes success. It’s important to reframe these challenges as knowing that weakness allows for empowerment and that everyone has weaknesses and limitations. Success means overcoming these limitations. 

In Step 2, we come to the realization that a Power higher than ourselves can restore us to sanity. We have to find out for ourselves, how that Higher Power manifests itself for us. Then we have to decide to turn our lives over to the care of that Higher Power (Step 3)—a spiritual endeavor indeed. In treatment, we tend to complicate this step, and it’s only the third one. 

In Step 4, we arrive at a more tangible task: making a fearless, moral inventory of ourselves. Step 5 is another spiritual task, where we are asked to admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. In Step 6 we prepare to have God remove all these defects of character, and then in Step 7, we humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings. It’s a spiritual purification: first, we identify our shortcomings and then we ask the Higher Power to help us remove them. 

Thus fortified, we are ready to make amends to all people we hurt with our addiction in the next two steps. Step 10 reminds us that recovery is an ongoing journey when we are asked to continue to take personal inventory and promptly admit it when we were wrong. This ongoing task is reinforced by prayer and meditation (Step 11), to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him. The culmination of our efforts is a spiritual awakening as envisioned in Step 12. This is exemplified by the three Ps: Promise, Purpose, and Practice. The Promise is the removal of our obsession (with using drugs or alcohol). The Purpose is carrying the message to other people in need, and the Practice is utilizing the Steps in all areas of life. 

Thus we are freed but remain part of a fellowship. We join a spiritual community with new symbols (Sobriety Circle & Triangle), new rituals (sober, healthy activities), and a new congregation: sponsors and fellow people in recovery you meet with on a regular basis. 
The shrinking world of substance misuse has been replaced by a fellowship that expands your world. Once the first step is understood, spirituality doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be connecting with the divine in the wilderness, for example, or simply finding your place in the world—discoveries that should be applicable outside the wilderness as well. 

It is knowing that wherever you are is perfect for you at this moment. 

Hope. Grit.