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Leveraging Spirituality in Recovery, Fighting Misconceptions to Improve Patient Outcomes

May 04, 2021

Our nation is currently, and rightly, focused on the threat that the coronavirus pandemic poses to our physical and economic health. But there is a second deadly epidemic we, as individuals in recovery and substance use disorder treatment professionals, will never lose sight of—the opioid crisis—which continues unabated. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 14 million people used opioids in the last year. Opioid overdoses took 47,000 American lives, and overdoses from other substances took 16,000 more in 2018. Additionally, the economic cost of substance use disorders, including crime, healthcare and lost productivity, exceeds $400 billion per year. While we waited with hope for an effective coronavirus vaccine, death tolls from substance use disorder and the pandemic continued mounting. Now that we have three vaccines available for COVID-19, we are reminded that, unfortunately, for substance use disorder, a vaccine is not a possible solution. So, what is?

Those in recovery understand firsthand that coping with a substance use disorder requires all the help you can get. However, we have witnessed many reoccurring misconceptions involving treatment, which have been known to impede on successful, long-term recovery for many people.

It is important to understand first that the disease of addiction stays with a person for a lifetime. There is no known cure or demonstrated way one can “rewire” the individual’s brain to stay clean. More importantly, the goal of recovery is to not “beat” addiction. But there are evidence-based treatment options that help people cope with their dependency such as integrating clinical, medical and spiritual care, the three pillars of effective substance use disorder treatment that are widely accepted today and are critical in helping each individual patient manage their disorder. However, we find that the role of spiritually in recovery is something that is perpetually misunderstood. Let us explain.

Regardless of your personal and spiritual beliefs or drug of choice, spirituality and connection to others are proven keys to recovery, as it is extremely difficult to achieve alone. In our experience, invoking one’s “higher power,” regardless of how the person conceptualizes that force, can make a crucial difference in whether one’s efforts at recovery succeed or fail. With this in mind, we also have found that some people find the second and third steps of the well-known Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program difficult when religion is conflated with spirituality, or more fundamentally, when the person does not believe in God or doubts the existence of God. What many fail to realize is that the second and third steps are not meant to impose a religious obligation, and indeed, there are many agnostics and atheists who regularly attend AA and NA meetings. For example, AA’s third step states, “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” To some, this might seem to exclude agnostics, atheists or anyone else who does not accept the notion of God as a deity who is worshipped in an organized religion, therefore discouraging some to participate in the positive connection that AA offers. But Step 2 says, “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” which refers to the notion that each individual is able to define their “higher power” in whatever way makes sense for them. For some, this equates to a deity, but for others, this can mean almost anything outside of the self who they believe they can trust and that motivates and inspires them to stay in recovery. In fact, the support one receives from AA, NA or other mutual-help groups can be considered forms of a higher power as they provide foundational support for the individual’s recovery.

To further explain, Brené Brown, PhD, defines spirituality as recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Dr. Brown further defines connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.

With this in mind, managing substance use disorder is not a matter of spirituality versus medical science. In our experience, a model of care that is grounded in evidence-based modalities of treatment, which integrates the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality into an experience that forges connection to self, others and a sense of meaning and purpose is highly effective in treating persons suffering from substance use disorder.

In sum, spirituality is the heart of recovery. Connection is the key to recovery. Love is the proper therapy for the human soul. By treating the mind, body and spirit as one, we train the mind to better cope. Although we have found a vaccine for coronavirus, we are still a way away from finding a cure for substance use disorder. In the meantime, we will continue helping others with the proper treatment that includes spiritual, clinical and medical care.

John D. Finnerty, PhD is professor of finance, Gabelli Business School, Fordham University, and vice chair, Board of Directors, Ashley Inc.; Mark Hushen, MDiv, MA is chief mission and legacy officer, Ashley Addiction Treatment; Jim Denvir is partner, Boies Schiller Flexner, and chair, Board of Directors, Ashley Inc.; J. Gregory Hobelmann, MD and Alex Denstman are joint CEOs for Ashley Addiction Treatment.

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