Higher Power

June 16-22, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 23
Higher Power
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
Spirituality gives hope to those recovering from addictions

Addicts spend their time focused on the thing that satisfies them most, whether it is alcohol, pills, cocaine, sex, food or even time on the Internet. At first they don’t realize the harm their addiction brings to their families, friends, co-workers and other relationships in their lives. They are consumed with the thought of their next encounter with the substance or experience that keeps them happy and keeps them from thinking about the emptiness and pain that lurks underneath the addiction.

Bottoming out can happen when a spouse declares that he/she will leave unless the addict gets help, or when the addict loseshis/her job, or when he/she can no longer pay bills. Kathy Papa is a retired nurse with 30 years of experience in substance abuse treatment and she said no one decides to get straight or sober because everything is “going great.”

“There is a certain element of ‘bottoming out’ involved but it can be different for different people,” Papa said. “Everybody doesn’t have to end up in the gutter before they bottom out.”

Addictions happen to people across the board from the CEO of a corporation to the unemployed to the sophomore in the local high school. An addiction develops insidiously; gradually the craving for more of a drug or a behavior can creep up on an individual who might already be carrying emotional burdens. In this country, Alcoholics Anonymous is considered one of the most successful philosophies and recovery programs available, and spirituality is at its core.

“The founders of A.A. knew that there had to be a belief in God or a higher power in order to have long-term recovery,” Papa said.

Spirituality is a common thread among those willing to talk about their recovery experience through A.A. Friar Phil Kelly is a Franciscan living and working on Syracuse’s northside. He is an award-winning columnist for The SUN and he is also an alcoholic who said he had to overhaul his spiritual life when he began treatment for his addiction. Through a variety of circumstances and for a variety of reasons, he hit bottom when he was serving as a tour guide in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

“I found myself unable to stop drinking, and my anger was taking over my life,” Friar Phil said. “I went for treatment and there I found what was really threatening was the ‘What if I let go? Will God be there?’ God was there and I began a new life with happiness and serenity I had never known. Letting go was the toughest decision I ever made.”

Friar Phil describes addiction as a disease which seeks to relieve feelings of anxiety, shame or unworthiness through the use of mind-altering substances or behaviors. The A.A. program is non-sectarian but Friar Phil said, “Some Catholics who have achieved sobriety by sitting on hard, church-basement chairs report that they have found more spirituality downstairs in the church basement than upstairs in the church.”

Papa said her experience with counseling persons with addictions has led her to believe that there are some hereditary or genetic factors involved. “It proves itself over and over again,” Papa said. “If you have a lot of addictions in your family then really I think you need to be involved in Al-Anon. A wise choice for a person with addiction in his or her family would be to abstain from alcohol or other substances, go to counseling and be cautious.”

Joe is an alcoholic who grew up in a home with a single mother and his sister. His mom had a lot to deal with and worked two jobs struggling to raise her children. He was part of a large Irish family where drinking among the teenagers was accepted.

“When I was 13 or 14 I was filled with fear and anxiety,” Joe said. “I was home alone a lot and I first experimented with drinking beer out of the fridge. I discovered the fear was gone then. I had liquid courage. When I was depressed, drinking made me happy and when I was fearful, it calmed my nerves.”

Joe says his drinking escalated quickly and, by the time he was 15, he was coming home from school at lunchtime for a beer. The more he drank, the more he needed to drink. He drank to mask his feelings and then woke up in the morning having experienced blackouts and did not remember what he had done while he was drunk. “Then I felt the fear and remorse and guilt and needed to drink more while I faced doing the damage control,” Joe said.

He first drank one night a week, then three and then pretty soon it was every night, Joe said. By the time he was 18 Joe knew he was in trouble. He tried an A.A. meeting then but he wasn’t ready for recovery. His recovery began at age 25 not after a single event, but rather a culmination of many things. “It really is a soul sickness,” Joe said. “You know you aren’t living your life the right way.” He tried outpatient treatment but nothing helped him as much as the A.A. process. He calls the program a “gift from God.”

“I used to think to myself, ‘Why me God?’ and now I think ‘Why me God? Why am I one of the lucky ones who get well?’” Joe said. “In admitting my complete weakness and defeat, I gained strength.”

The emotional and spiritual strength of those in recovery is remarkable. The odds they overcome and the rebuilding of their lives can take years. Judy has been sober for 26 years and still remains connected to the A.A. program. Her addiction began when she was a teenager and she loved the way she felt when she drank. Judy partied every weekend with her high school friends and then when she went to college she kept up the weekend partying.

Judy eventually met another English major that she married but much of their relationship revolved around drinking. “We were drinking buddies and great friends,” she said. They had three children together and eventually the alcohol consumption contributed to health problems. “By the time I got to A.A. I was bankrupt spiritually, emotionally and physically. I was on my way out and I didn’t think I was going to live,” Judy said.

All this time, she had a couple of friends who were praying novenas for her. Judy was an Episcopalian but said that she was always attracted to the Catholic faith. So she eventually went through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program and is a Catholic. She looks at her alcoholism as a spiritual disease. “I had to get sick enough before I could ask for help,” she said. And, once she did, it was “the beginning of my real life.”

Like Judy, Maria is a strong woman. She raised seven children on her own after 13 years of marriage. Her husband left to pursue his alcohol and gambling addictions. It took time before Maria was able to realize that she could not do for her husband what he could not do for himself.

“He came from a broken family and probably with an alcoholic background. Back in those days addiction was not something we understood or acknowledged,” Maria said.

About 10 years ago Maria became concerned about a family member who began to experience the effects of alcoholism and so she started going to Al-Anon meetings. “I began to learn more about detachment and enabling. As a mother and someone who worked in the healthcare field, I was very much a caregiver and I had to learn to detach from them with love. The thing I try to remember is that any addict is dealing with a ‘dis-ease’ within — a hole in the soul.”

It has taken Maria a while to learn that she is powerless over the choices made by the people she loves. Because she has a strong faith, she said, it is relatively easy for her to envision turning over issues or problems or people to God. “I can visualize Christ sitting down with us as children sitting around Him. He knows all their brokenness and He knows all of my brokenness so I try to let it go and not focus on it, and not let it bring me down,” she said.

Maria’s children eventually tracked down their father and some of them were somewhat reconciled with him years later. He died eight years ago never having recovered from his addictions. Maria, however, came to realize that her husband could not have effectively communicated with his family while he lived in such a broken state. “I was able to come to a point where I could forgive and that was a biggie,” Maria said.

Today, five of Maria’s seven children — six boys and one girl — have college degrees and most of them refrain from cigarettes and even coffee. She taught religious education classes for a number of years and made sure to bring speakers who addressed addiction to her confirmation classes.

“I continue to have a strong spirituality and am strengthened by those around me,” she said.

A strong spiritual life was something that Bob, an alcoholic, always counted on. He was a member of a Franciscan community for a few years and still tries to live his life abiding by Franciscan principles. But, when he lived his life as an addict, his faith was one of the first things to go.

“One of the first things that goes in addiction is spirituality,” Bob said, “because when you’re in active addiction your life revolves around the substance and anything that gets in the way of that is dropped.”

Bob said he felt so much despair that he felt God had abandoned him when in reality, he had abandoned God. Whatever the addiction is, it alters one’s thinking, the way a person behaves and the way one approaches things, he said. There is so much confusion, secrecy and anxiety that there isn’t room for spirituality. “It doesn’t fit,” he said.

“The way addiction robs you is indescribable,” Bob said. “The addiction wanted me 24/7. None of this was clear to me then. I had 43 days in rehab. I had no job, no home, nothing. I had to move into a halfway house. Now I’m back in college and my spirituality has never been stronger. I have a very strong Franciscan spirituality. It’s not heady, it’s very simple.”

Bob described his time as an active addict as being on “a merry-go-round from hell.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how awful it is,” he said. “You want to get off but you don’t know how. If I couldn’t get off, I drank so I could at least forget I was on the merry-go-round.”

As Bob began recovery and began telling his story and listening to the stories of others with addictions, it became clear to him that he was not alone and that God was with him. His spirituality didn’t return to him like a bolt of lightning, he said, but it was a progression and is now an integral part of his life. Bob takes time in the morning and at night to devote himself to prayer or some type of spiritual exercise.

“I figure if I can watch a sitcom for a half hour, I can sit down in prayer for a while,” he said. “I allow God to speak to me through prayer and through others. I try to keep the lines of communication open. I try to make it an absolute so that prayer time in my life is not negotiable. Sometimes it’s formal other times informal, like just being present for another person.”

Bob does feel that he always had some form of spirituality in his life, but that the addiction forced him to re-discover that part of his life. “It’s a process. It’s not so much the destination as it is the journey,” he said.

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