Redefining Success in Sobriety

As the epidemic of addiction grows, it's imperative we do not "debunk" the spirituality of AA just to raise up the scientific community.
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Every day, it seems, there's a new article on ways to treat addiction. The most contentious of late was Gabrielle Glaser's "The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous," in The Atlantic.

There will always be a Gabrielle Glaser fighting for more evidence-based treatment. There will also always be success stories found in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. So which way is best? As the epidemic of addiction grows, it's imperative we do not "debunk" the spirituality of AA just to raise up the scientific community. I know this from the unique intersection of my personal and professional lives -- I'm a depth psychologist specialized in treating addiction, and a recovering addict and alcoholic myself. I believe it is time for a shift. When it comes to battling addiction, we need to be open to crossing boundaries into other disciplines. Our approach needs to become more holistic and integrative as we seek to heal ourselves, and the world.

I have been sober since 2002. In my early 20s I was an attorney living in New York City, and the only reason I drank was to get drunk. I didn't drink because I enjoyed the taste of wine with dinner. I didn't even drink to take the edge off. Getting drunk for me meant blacking out, and often involved vomit and hangovers. When I started to feel like life wasn't enough -- materially, romantically, metaphorically and spiritually -- I broke up with my boyfriend and moved to Los Angeles with my sister and my dog.

With a new career in mind, I started in the mailroom of a major Hollywood talent agency. I moved up to assistant, then later to partner. I felt satisfied for a while as I achieved outward success. However, this definition of "success" changed radically a decade later.

I continued drinking, and started doing drugs. Both still seemed harmless. They made me feel more confident, prettier and funnier. Nothing terrible had happened to me yet, I told myself. But this was one of many lies. As I continued to drink and use drugs, my brain was slowly becoming more and more dysfunctional and I started losing my sense of self. By the end of my run, my disease was in total control. I was a shell of a woman with no evident self-esteem, self-awareness or authenticity.

In treating addiction, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are treating a human being, not just a chronic illness. Addiction is a complex brain disease. The brain shares space with the mind and therefore, with consciousness. We need to be able to think across the boundaries of science and medicine into the spiritual realm, into soul-making.

The depth psychologist James Hillman wrote poetically when it came to explaining the soul:

[It is] the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image and fantasy -- that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical ... that unknown component, which makes meaning possible, turns events into experiences, is communicated in love, has religious concern [deriving from its special relation with death].

My education and experience have taught me that the soul's evidence may come in different forms. Five years into my sobriety, I retired from the entertainment business and found my calling in healing, addiction recovery and caring for the soul. Knowing there was still something missing I turned inward instead of looking "out there." My definition of success began to change. The driving need for power, money and status provided only a temporary high. I was now searching for meaning and purpose. Abstinence is just one piece of the pie. It enables us only to begin to heal the brain.

Alcohol and drug addiction affects two main areas of the brain: the old or reptilian brain and the new brain, or prefrontal cortex. The old brain regulates our physiological functions like respiration, heartbeat and temperature; controls our basic emotions and cravings; and remembers what we did to survive or feel relief, prompting us to do it again and again.

The prefrontal cortex processes information coming from the old brain. It allows us to speak, reason, create, remember, make decisions and act accordingly. But addiction overstimulates the old brain and hijacks our dopamine reward pathways. Thus, the old brain becomes more powerful than the new brain. After chronic use, the new brain is sometimes rendered completely dysfunctional.

As an addict, once any substance enters my system, my new brain is down for the count -- it's unable to make a rational decision. Even with all I know, I cannot think my way into stopping my drug use.

What does all this have to do with AA? Everything!

AA gave me a life. It taught me the meaning of grace and serenity. The rooms of AA have given me a safe place to go everywhere in the world, places to truly connect. The community introduced me to soul sisters and brothers I will love for life. I have seen the light turn on in people's eyes, people who otherwise didn't stand a chance. Miracles happen in those rooms. It is not the only way, but it sure is powerful. It's also the most spiritual program we have right now, helping everyone from adolescents to the elderly live with this chronic illness.

We need a new methodology. We need to focus on both neuroscience and phenomenology. This makes each person's own lived story the basis for understanding the nature of consciousness, while also using evidence-based research to treat and heal.

I believe it's time to redefine success in sobriety. Sobriety is not merely abstinence, or the absence of a craving. Are we not meant to live soulful lives? I suggest we deepen our notion of successful sobriety and move into soul-making. Not everyone is going be game to take on what is necessary to transform their lives. Some will be satisfied with taking a pill, but others will want to go deeper. Others will want to heal, live in the light and feed their soul.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.