Alarm! Beware! The sky is falling, the sky is falling! False and exaggerated statements about illegal drug abuse published on the front page of a very widely circulated newspaper raised an alarm in our area. Bennington has been bullied and people are feeling bruised.
Some people blame the newspaper. No doubt, some people blame the subjects of that article. If "those people" who abuse illegal drugs were not living among us, Bennington's reputation as a "quaint" and attractive town would not have been tarnished. Shame on them.
Shame is constantly recycled in people who suffer from addiction, whether to alcohol, food, cigarettes, gambling, exercise, relationships, drugs, shopping, or computer content. The well-intentioned sees what a mess life has become, and tries to stop the behavior by sheer willpower. She fails and feels ashamed. To escape that feeling, she gets high. He eats a bag of cookies when no one can see him rather than feel any negative emotions. It does no good for people to wag the finger of shame, as anyone close to a person with a substance abuse problem knows.
We might have compassion for the addict, though we hate the behavior that causes people so much pain. Life is challenging for everyone, and some of us cannot cope without numbing our fears, our feelings of inadequacy, or post-traumatic stress. Unaware of our inner resources, we look outside ourselves for relief. Therein lies a spiritual problem that can lead to the disease of substance abuse, gambling addiction, and other self-destructive behavior.
I invite you to think about addiction as a spiritual emergency. Instead of blaming and shaming people or ourselves for being addicted, we might understand that we are in a spiritual crisis. Underneath chemical dependency and the cravings that come with it, is a craving for spiritual transformation. Searching outside ourselves, we want an experience beyond our personal limitations and the fears that keep us from growing. We want to feel whole, united with the essential energies in All That Is. We want something outside of ourselves to help us transcend our ordinary, mortal lives.
At first, the drink or the drug loosens our inhibitions, helps us relax, and brings about a state of pseudo-unity with others or the world. This is temporarily freedom from the limitations of our fears. William James, writing about religious experiences, said, "Drunkenness expands, unites, says ‘Yes.'"
We think, "that feels good, let me do it again! I won't do it all the time, just on weekends." Then it isn't long before we depend on that substance, thing, person or behavior to take us away from the same old-same old of routine living. Caught up in a self-destructive, shame-filled pattern, we deny we have a problem. Denial is a defense against seeing and feeling how much we are hurting.
Addicts are not unethical people. They are not without moral integrity or strength of character. They have a disease. In the 12 step recovery programs there's a saying, "We are not bad people trying to be good. We are sick people trying to get well."
Before recovery, addicts have to break through a powerful state of denial to seek help. Sometimes family interventions, accidents or law enforcement do it for them. Even with those interventions, despite a firm resolve not to return to the behavior, many addicts relapse.
Addiction creates crisis. In that crisis lies an opportunity. There is a way to move through the worst of times, the total destruction of the Self. Hitting bottom, as it is known, can be understood as spiritual bankruptcy. Whatever inner resources one may have had are gone.
In this dreadful state lies an opportunity for spiritual re-emergence. The ego is so defenseless at that surrender is the only option. That surrender can mean letting go of life, which is tragic. An alternate surrender that leads back to life is letting go of the ego, allowing it to die and accepting help.
Help from a treatment program that cares for both the medical problem of physical chemical dependency and provides guidance on a spiritual pathway is the best way to deal with the spiritual crisis of living near death. In recovery that supports spiritual rebirth addicts may discover, "this is what I was looking for." Rising from the ashes of an inner death, the person is spiritually reborn. Just as newborn babies are delicate and require tender care, so it is for the addict in this fragile stage of recovery. With this care, it is possible to discover the miracle of having lived through the darkest time.
The elation of early sobriety fades and relapse at this stage is likely. Service to others, passing on what one has experienced in death and spiritual rebirth is a good counter-measure to relapse.
Recovery from addiction is like the hero's journey found in all the world's literature. The hero moves from home to the threshold of adventure. Before crossing the threshold, she meets a guardian, symbolic of the limitation of her fears about what lies beyond. She must go forward and enters the adventure to challenge the fearful things in herself. She meets those trials and ordeals alone. It is like a descent into hell, where there is no way to touch God, no way to feel the impulse from the divine. The battle is the symbol for hitting bottom. Then the hero returns home, bringing with her the lessons learned from her experiences. She gladly shares her story with others.
The hero's journey is about spiritual transformation. People who work in centers for recovery have a sacred role. They act as midwives to help patients through the hero's journey. The hero returns home having discovered that what she wanted could be found within herself. Her spiritual emergence will be a blessing to all whose lives she touches.
May this community welcome centers where compassionate treatment of spiritual emergencies can help many people on their journeys of self-transformation. Spiritual maturity accepts nothing less.
The Rev. Lucy Ijams is consulting minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bennington.