Addiction and Recovery
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore November 14th, 1993


The Ten Commandments of Addiction

1. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.

2. Thou shalt honor me before thy father and mother.

3. Thou shalt not question me.

4. Thou shalt suspect everyone but me.

5. Thou shalt kill any who threaten me.

6. Thou shalt set aside time to worship me.

7. Thou shalt make large financial offerings to me.

8. Thou shalt sacrifice thy children to me.

9. Thou shalt seek forgiveness only through me.

10. Thou shalt not ever forget me.


As I was preparing what I wanted to say this week, I realized I had enough material for three to four sermons. Addiction is one of the most important problems facing this country today. Most of us probably know someone who has a problem with substance abuse, be it alcohol, illicit drugs, or medications. One of the flaws of our culture is the importance it puts on using mood- altering chemicals or experiences to normalize life. We are constantly conditioned by advertising to look for material solutions to emotional and spiritual problems. A perfume or new car will make one desirable. A vacation to Hawaii is needed to relax. Buy some new clothes of fine material and chase away the blues.

Let me state very clearly that use of the material world to satisfy our needs isn't the problem. The problem is the false dependency which the mind can create in response to substances which are palliative or pleasurable. This is especially true with mood-altering chemicals. There is evidence some of us may have a genetic weakness which makes us vulnerable to addictive behavior. Others see it as the result of a harmful social environment. Whatever the reason for the arising of addictive behavior, no one ever starts out with the goal of becoming dependent on alcohol or tobacco. Most insidious addictions begin with pleasure or relief from pain. As the behavior is repeated and the emotional payoff is reinforced, the brain forms strong internal patterns of attachment. With each intoxication, the habit becomes stronger and stronger.

Now this wouldn't be a problem if these substances weren't destructive to our bodies. Take coffee, for example. Caffeine is a mood-altering chemical which is enjoyed by just about everybody. Many people just can't get started in the morning without their strong cup of java, tea, or a Coke. Now no one has shown that long-term caffeine consumption is harmful so none of us worry about how much we consume except to prevent the caffeine jitters when we drink too much. But if a medical study proved a link between some disease and caffeine consumption, say kidney failure, that cafe latte might begin to look more sinister.

The problem with alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine and the other dangerous substances is that they betray our trust. One consumes them to feel good and they secretly work to destroy one's body. They are like a false friend who appears to be giving you aid while secretly draining your bank account. Addiction isn't a sign of depravity. Addiction is a harmful adaptation which is hard to stop because of the physical, and emotional attachments and dependencies which develop.

As negative consequences accrue for substance abuse the really dangerous adaptations occur - the changes in beliefs. By now the substance has been incorporated into the identity of the individual (I am a smoker, I enjoy drinking, I need a drink when my feelings are hurt, etc.). These beliefs about the self work to moderate and control of the individual's state of well being. Thus a threat to the next beer or glass of whiskey is a threat to the user.

Our minds are surprisingly good at adapting our belief systems toward that which appears to give us pleasure. Our minds are frightfully good at reinforcing those beliefs when our source of pleasure is threatened. Perhaps I have already threatened some by casting aspersions at caffeine consumption a few minutes earlier. If our substance is shown to be harmful, we shoot the messenger. Like a climbing grape vine cutting off the light from a tree, what destroys the user more powerfully than the substance abuse is the mental deformation as he or she becomes less and less in touch with reality, enshrouded by darkness. The result is a system of beliefs of substance abuse from which I read the ten commandments.

The problem here is the irrational nature of this system of beliefs. Most people with substance abuse problems would deny that this was their belief system yet their actions would tell another story. This system of beliefs will effectively cut off any advice, caution or confrontation which threatens the addictive behavior.

Most people with substance abuse problems actually do see this process happening but feel powerless to control it. The dangers don't surface until the addiction has a chain around the user's throat. Every failed attempt to quit reinforces this sense of powerlessness. Friends, income, health and social status are lost, wounding the self esteem. The loss of self esteem further weakens one's will to change as one values one's self and everything else less and less. The pain is eased by tightening the relationship with the substance in a downward spiral.

It is critical to understand the user's ambivalence. The substance abused is at once, enemy and ally. The user's life is going down the tubes and the substance becomes the false prop to manage the situation and keep things from falling apart. Most in this situation would like to escape the downward spiral - but how?

The solution which most quickly comes to mind is Alcoholics Anonymous. A.A. (and other 12-step programs) is one of the most successful systems helping people stop their substance abuse.

The twelve steps were inspired partly by the words of Jung suggesting that a religious conversion experience might be the only way to overcome addictive behavior patterns. Bill W., the founder of A.A. took this encouragement and did himself have a transformative religious experience which he later tried to systematize as the 12 steps.

The fundamental goal of the 12-step process is experiencing a religious conversion through the grace of a higher power. It is the conversion experience which removes the compulsion to drink. From the beginning the higher power has been broadly defined, but it basically means a force outside oneself which can be relied upon to help one stay sober. Some interpret this as the group, some Jesus, others use a sense of a personal deity, some even use a bed pan (which is the classic example for the unbeliever).

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the twelve steps. For the first step, all that is needed is a confession that "We were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable." After admitting one cannot save oneself from drink, one must begin to realize that "a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." This power is not within the addicted person but a force outside them. Once the addicted person realizes they don't have the resources to solve their problem and there are resources outside themselves, they "turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understand Him." After a "searching and fearless moral inventory", if the addicted person has any doubts about their wretchedness, they are removed and the dependence on the higher power is deepened. The addicted person is encouraged to admit these failings as is possible and amends are recommended. In this state of powerlessness and awareness of the damage the addiction has wrought, God is asked to remove these defects of character and shortcomings. The conversion experience is sought. This process is repeated and the 12-stepper is encouraged to watch their behavior, admitting wrongs promptly, and seeking "through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for His will and the power to carry that out." The final step reads as follows, "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs".

I wanted to briefly explain these steps to you so you could see the religious nature of A.A. It's a program that works quite well for those who already embrace a personal God and see the conversion experience as a regenerative one. The personal deity offers the strength missing from His imperfect, flawed creatures suffering as we do from the curse of Original Sin. Many with a more secular bent do find that the steps work for them too by adapting the meaning of higher power and focusing on the transformative experiences which can and do happen, weakening the addiction's hold. It is a program that has worked and continues to work very well for many people.

But there are no universal cures. For those who are not theistically oriented, or have strong negative associations with dependency or traditional religion, these steps just don't work. Why A.A. works for the atheists may be the strong supportive social network around A.A. There are meetings each day of the week. Sponsors are ready to hold the hand of the person ready to fall off the wagon. Being reminded of the value of sobriety every day can greatly reinforce any energy one puts toward recovery.

Again, for all its success, A.A. just doesn't work for everyone. And fortunately there are viable alternatives.

The idea for this sermon came from reading an article about one such group called Rational Recovery. There are other non-religiously oriented recovery groups but this one got my attention because it had a radically different premise from A.A. One could overcome addiction, says Rational Recovery, through self-reliance rather than dependency on a higher power. Long before A.A. existed, many people had recovered under their own power. This method of cultivating one's inner resources appealed to my rational side, which feels that people can be educated to help themselves.

Rational Recovery or R.R. starts from the premise that addictive behavior is a dysfunctional adaptation of the mind. The addicted person's mind is full of irrational thoughts and beliefs about substance abuse. At root, the most important delusion is the need to use the substance which is slowly killing the individual. The problem is that the addicted person's thinking is so confused that they do not clearly see the inaccuracy and outright falsehood of their irrational thoughts and beliefs.

The first step in R.R. is to begin to witness these irrational thoughts as they arise. The first thought that must be confronted is the belief that an individual cannot stop drinking. No matter what recovery program for substance abuse is tried, all the successful ones require abstinence as the goal. Whether with the support of a higher power or a lower fear of self destruction, the individual can and does stop using that substance. The thought that an individual cannot stop drinking comes from the constellation of habits, adaptations and cravings which drive the addiction process. In R.R., these mental patterns are identified as "the Beast". Then the individual is encouraged to realize that although the addiction process runs their lives, their healthy self which wants to recover is different from the Beast. The rational self and the Beast are two separate forces working in his or her psyche.

Of course, recognizing the Beast is one thing, controlling it is quite another kettle of fish. But something very important happens when one can look at a problem as an unhealthy adaptation rather than a flaw in oneself. The addicted person can start to appreciate the forces that are already at work in them that wish to be free of the addictive patterns and augment them.

R.R. theory hinges on the idea that we can change our behavior by changing our beliefs. By using and developing the tool of awareness, the irrational thoughts and beliefs can be seen as they arise and interdicted. Awareness and rationality are powerful forces which can be harnessed to protect us from irrational self-destructive behavior. The mind is a tremendously powerful force once its ways are understood and effective techniques applied.

Users are their own worst enemy because they find themselves controlled by all their irrational dangerous ideas. For addicted individuals, four particularly difficult irrationally understood ideas are the Freudian idea that we are controlled by our unconscious impulses, the behavioralistic view that drinking is a conditioned, automatic response, the idea that the devil made me do it, and the disease theory that one is incompetent to choose to become unaddicted. One of R.R.'s major complaints against A.A. is that it is full of irrational, unprovable beliefs, starting with the first principle of powerlessness, which make the person in recovery weak and vulnerable (to facilitate the conversion experience) rather than strong and self-empowered.

Support for the idea that a person can direct their own recovery comes from Dr. Albert Ellis and his work developing a technique called Rational Emotive Therapy. Dr. Ellis believed any human response starts from an activating physical event which is then run through the beliefs of the individual which then generate emotional and behavioral consequences based on those beliefs. Emotions, therefore, are not directly caused by events or circumstances, rather by our internalized interpretation of those events. One person passing a beggar on the street feels sorry for their plight and gives a dollar. Another becomes angry at the lazy bum and kicks their tin cup. Awareness can be used to investigate our reactions as they occur to root out these beliefs. Thus for the person with a substance abuse problem, after one has stopped using, relapse can be prevented by catching the irrational thoughts, what Rational Recovery names the Beast, in the act and neutralizing their power.

Probably the most important technique to counter the irrational thoughts is self-talk directed at this conception of the Beast. Some people find anger toward this imaginary enemy to be effective and appropriate, and others find sarcasm and humor fitting ways of refusing to cooperate with the monolithic mentality that would accept suffering and death as a consequence of imbibing. A favorite retort is "What part of 'no' don't you understand?" RR members learn that they can make themselves feel good at will just by thinking lovingly of themselves, and that they need not change in any way in order to do so. They do not remain sober in order to think well of themselves; it is because they like or value themselves that they do not drink."[1]

Rather than being berated for denial of addictive behavior, the rational self is elevated as being imperfect, fallible, yet having intrinsic worth. It is honored for having the good sense to want to survive and the power to be emotionally independent from external events. It can think thoughts which will stand the test of reason and tolerate frustration, pain and discomfort. It can correctly identify and enjoy healthy pleasures which will satisfy the need for good feeling.

Rational Recovery doesn't say that a user may not need help in getting back on his or her feet from a group or a therapist. Often alcohol masks deep emotional pain which needs expert assistance. A detox program might be needed to protect the user's health, for example. What it clearly does say is that one can use the mind to eventually conquer addiction. People have used this technique and it has worked for them. It may not work for everyone and there are those who can't follow this path. It may also be true that for some A.A. works better in the early stages of recovery and R.R. helps them learn to stay sober without attending meetings every day.

What I find particularly interesting about the Rational Recovery method is the synergism with Unitarian Universalism and our view of the importance of self-reliance. The philosophy and techniques of R.R. also seem like an excellent way to deal with other compulsive habits. I think we could serve this community for which 12-step programs don't work, by investigating whether we might start a Rational Recovery group here.

Whatever the method, the end - sobriety - can be served by many means. Rational Recovery is one viable, workable, successful method that belongs in the selection of means we can feel good about supporting. Addiction can be overcome without appealing to a higher power than the power of the mind.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.