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The Question of Spirituality in Recovery

September 06, 2013

By Eric Arauz
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

I was recently asked to speak to a group of young adults who lived on a locked unit of a major hospital in Chicago. I was scheduled to speak with child psychiatrists and residents immediately after the talk. 

The boys and girls all had severe abuse histories and numerous behavioral health diagnoses, and they had been removed from their state-sponsored living situations several times this year. 

This ward, in this hospital, was considered the “basement” of the Illinois system, and the kids imbibed the hopelessness of the institution that housed them. I was told they were very actively suicidal at the prospect of turning 18 and not even having the system to care for them. 

The 10 residents entered the small room at the end of the main hall and stared at me and through me. When I made eye contact, they broke it off immediately. Fear registered in their bodies, and they became something completely different right in front of my eyes.  

I felt sorrow. I felt heartbroken. I felt at home. 

At the end of my talk, the medical director asked how was it possible that I could connect with these children. I told him it was simple but excruciatingly painful. I told him I offered them my suffering and anguish as a conduit to our shared experience. 

That I spoke to their souls. 

The question of Spirituality has been at the center of my recovery with bipolar disorder, addiction, child abuse, and persistent trauma.

It was first introduced in my addiction recovery as a discussion of a Higher Power, an occupational divinity, which I could use to overcome the obstacles in my life. 

A favorite quote of mine captures this feeling:

There is a muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind.

 Annie Dillard 

As I matured and began to put my life back together, I felt a need for this power to help me connect with myself—to help me become intimate with the horrors of my past and to learn to work with the shames associated with my time in the hospital and the acts I took against my family while symptomatic.            

My journey became more insular as I began to look for my place in the world with these disorders and to find acceptance at a visceral level. I wanted to be vulnerable to life, but the physical and spiritual fear were constant. To trust the acts my support group and therapist were asking me to take to become Free of these impediments, I needed the connection to something greater, something divine, and something loving. 

As I made deeper and deeper discoveries about my life and was able to elucidate this, as the philosopher William James says, “torn-to-pieces-hood”, I began to connect to others, to the world, and to myself. I began to thirst for that feeling of existential ease and fullness. 

Now, my spirituality is permanently intertwined with my recovery, and, like the Desert Mystics of the 3rd to 5th centuries, I was ready to “confront my God on a most intimate level—by confronting myself fiercely and fully.” 

I felt for a long time that I was not simply sick or ill but damned.  I felt that if there was a God he hated me, and I eventually hated him back. I felt a perpetual and punishing isolation from all things, including my own soul. 

But spirituality has given me the power and passion to work to build my life the numerous hours I am outside the therapist’s office, to fight to live my life fully and freely and to travel the world helping others find succor in their journeys through their own hells. 

How do you approach Spirituality with your clients? Is it something you are comfortable addressing in the treatment paradigm? 

How do you work with clients of different faiths than yourself? 

Can medication and discussions of God and Spirituality coexist in a treatment paradigm and even complement each other?

Eric Arauz, MLER, is an international behavior health consumer advocate, trainer, and inspirational keynote speaker. He is a faculty member at the Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Department of Psychiatry, the Vice-Chairman of the current New Jersey Task Force on Opiate Addiction in citizens 18 to 25 years old, and a person with the lived experience of bipolar I disorder, PTSD, addiction, and suicidality. He is the SAMHSA 2012 "Voice Award" Fellow and the author of An American's Resurrection: My Pilgrimage from Child Abuse and Mental Illness to Salvation. 

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Psych Congress Network or other Psych Congress Network authors.

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