Addiction and the spirit


David O’Brien

Over the last 35 years, until my recent retirement, I have been involved with the prevention, intervention and treatment of substance abuse disorders in this community. As one can image, I have been privileged to hear many stories, some with very tragic endings and some of triumphant recoveries. In so may of these stories I found common themes; themes of woundedness, histories of trauma, search for direction and acceptance. Many other familiar issues are contributors to or results of the progression of substance abuse and addiction. Among these are the lack of self-acceptance, self-defeating thoughts and behaviors and sheer life restlessness. All of this results in the insidious drive to alter one’s current reality, one’s current state of consciousness.

Why is it that so many of us in this community are so involved in seeking to feel different or to feel better than the natural state that the Good Lord has given us? What drives this restlessness, this "dis-ease" of consciousness? Well, countless research studies, books and careers have been dedicated to seeking insight into this question. Ruling out the obvious causes such as the response to trauma (childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, abandonment) or drivers such as family genetics or risk factors from mental illness, the answers become more complex and evasive.

The thought I want to propose, ruling out the above issues, is that one familiar driver of addiction is "spiritual bankruptcy." In the concept of a healthy "whole person" we have physical, emotional, social, vocational as well as spiritual components. Ideally, in a healthy person each of these is tended to and there is some semblance of balance, that is, no one area dominates to the deference of one or more of the others. It has only been in the last 15 or 20 years that the world of addiction treatment has been paying more attention to the spiritual dimension along with the physical and psychological ones. This only developed after it became clear in the field that health in this area -- the spiritual dimension -- greatly contributed to successful recovery from addiction.

The great St. Augustine is credited for saying: "O Lord, our hearts won’t rest until they rest in you." I have worked with so many people over the four decades of my career who have been seeking their "rest" in the likes of a substance or an addictive behavior (eating, gambling, sex, shopping). Although there may be temporary rest in these, it is fleeting. Thus, more time and attention is needed in order to achieve an altered state of being. Hearts don’t rest in that which is fleeting.

May our prayer be that we strive to be people in search for what brings lasting peace and rest to our hearts. For many of us, this lies in a search for the divine. For all of us, may we at least pay attention to our spiritual side.

David O’Brien is a retired addiction therapist and mental health administrator. For over 10 years he has been an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church and ministers at St John the Baptist Catholic Church in North Bennington.


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