(Based on a recent lecture at a workshop)

What is the personality of an addict?

He or she is:

  • self-centred
  • manipulative, 
  • emotionally unstable (apparently angry) 
  • and impatient 

Moreover, he/ she has an irrational belief that he is right and he has a right. Others are wrong and do not have rights. 

Recovery from addiction means not merely stopping using alcohol or drugs, but bringing about a change in his personality.

Carl Jung, the famous 20th century Swiss psychiatrist, had worked with hopeless alcoholics named Rowland H. According to Carl Jung, Rowland’s only chance to recover from his alcoholism was a “spiritual or religious experience – in short, a genuine conversion.” Jung went on to say that this type of spiritual experience had been happening to alcoholics for centuries, but that he did not know how to produce such a spiritual experience through the use of psychological methods. Jung further observed that Rowland’s alcoholism was “the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.” Jung’s letter went on to say that, “…alcohol in Latin is spiritus” and that the same Latin word is used for “the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.” 

In his correspondence with Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, the psychologist Carl Jung stated his opinion that craving for alcohol was really "the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness. Bill W tried to bring about a spiritual experience in the alcoholic by 12 steps to aid his recovery.

In short, recovery from addiction requires a 'spiritual' approach. It means changing what is within the addict. Whatever other control strategies the family or addict may try are doomed to failure - change of job, geographical change, changing the way to 'deal' with the addict and other such attempts to change the external factors.   

Let us try and make this simple and see what changes must occur in the addict, or what spiritual challenges the addict may face.

Self-centred to compassionate

An addict mostly thinks about himself or herself. Somehow to get the substance, by hook or by crook. To get his way and justify his using. He feels entitled to money and privileges, without earning them. He has little empathy with others and is mostly incapable of feeling what others may be feeling. He is at the centre of his universe.

The opposite of this is compassion. Feeling for others and willing to give way. Learning to sacrifice his own desires and comforts, in order to accommodate others. Learning to give and not just take.

This change can be termed as 'transcending the ego' or 'going beyond self'. This begins with surrender: surrender of the self. It begins with the realization that 'I may be wrong’; 'I am not the most important person in the world'. And evolves with the understanding that 'my happiness is linked with the happiness of others'. Slowly, he begins to feel the joy of giving, of earning respect. He begins to feel worthy through the well being generated around him by his own compassionate attitudes and actions.

This step is also a step in humility. In my experience, I have seen that truly successful people are humble. And the most unhappy and unpopular people are arrogant, even though they may be successful materially. Humble people are kind, considerate. Most importantly, they are open-minded. Therefore they are capable of learning more, taking inputs from others, because they do not think they are always right or that they know everything. Thus they continue to grow and are most likely to succeed in all areas of their lives.

Manipulation to acceptance

Manipulation is born of non-acceptance. When I am not willing to accept reality, I will try and change it somehow. I will project a false image; I will try and change people, places and situations to suit my distorted reality.

The fact is that reality is real. It cannot be changed. It has to be accepted. As the saying goes: "I cannot change the wind, but I can adjust my sails". Once the reality is accepted, denial begins to be broken. For the addict, reality begins with accepting the fact that he or she is an addict or alcoholic. This simple fact is often denied by the addict. If he or she accepts that he or she is an addict, then it follows naturally that he or she has all the characteristics of an addict, and that one has caused all the damages normally associated with addictive behaviour. The 12 steps lead gently onto the next steps: from acceptance of this basic fact to further steps to bring change and recovery.

The addict is so enmeshed in manipulation of his outward reality that a stage often comes when he himself begins to believe in his reality. This is called 'denial'. This distortion of reality envelops his whole perspective of the universe and he is totally cut off from the real world. It is due to this denial that most addicts do not think they need 'treatment' - since they believe that they do not have a problem, or the problem is not so acute, they are therefore convinced that they do not need to seek a solution. 

From acceptance comes comfort. A huge burden is lifted and the addict is now ready to begin the journey of recovery.

Emotional instability to calmness

The most apparent emotional state of an addict is anger. However, this is only the outward expression of other uncomfortable feelings he is undergoing. 

The actual emotions the addict may be experiencing is fear, shame and guilt. These are the triggers to anger and are strong feelings and are the result of his behaviours. He is constantly scared that he may be found out, that his manipulations may not work, that his using may be threatened, that others will actually see his real self. He is ashamed of the consequences of his behaviour, such as falling down in a party or creating a public scene. He is guilty and tries to make amends, only to repeat his actions.

Over time, he also discovers that anger is a good tool to manipulate others. Family members fear his anger and try to appease him to avoid getting him angry.

When the emotions of fear, shame and guilt are addressed, anger subsides.

Impatience to learning to wait

Addicts want everything right now. They are incapable of waiting.

However, as his or her recovery becomes strong, the addict learns the benefits of waiting. He or she feels the joy of achieving small goals over time.

The addict becomes less demanding and begins to work to get what he wishes. He begins to live more in the day, rather than in the past or future.

This change is a process. It is a slow, gradual evolution, with its ups and downs. 

Sobriety is avoiding stress

However, these changes do not all occur on their own. Some of this progress requires conscious effort and adherence to certain principles as laid down by 12 step programs or an after care facility.

This progress may be impeded by challenges or as a leading expert Terry Gorski calls 'stuck points'. These stuck points may be incidents or symptoms of inward upheaval arising from long term abuse of substances. These stuck points generate stress and this has to be handled otherwise the addict begins to slide on a relapse curve.

So ultimately, staying sober is nothing but learning to prevent relapse. And it may be said that preventing relapse is essentially learning to manage stress.

So the best way to deal with stress is to avoid it. An addict must not get into situations that are potentially stressful: at work, at home, at a party.

He or she must avoid meeting old using friends, must learn to practice humility (therefore remain open-minded), honesty (as an opposite of manipulation), share his true emotions (the best place is to do so with other addicts and alcoholics at 12 step meetings) and practice prayer and meditation (helps with humility and patience).

Staying sober is like driving a car without brakes on an uphill road. There is only the accelerator. So the addict has to keep his foot firmly on the accelerator and cannot afford to stop.

Recovery is a life-long process, not an event.

Irrational thinking to sanity

One basic belief an addict has that 'life should be easy'. He or she tries everything to make life easy. The addict believes that if he gets adequate drugs or alcohol, life will be good; if he or she gets an attractive partner, life will be easy; if they get lots of money or prestige, and then life will be great, and so on.

But the fact is that life is not easy. Life is full of challenges. This is a basic truth.

In recovery, there are other beliefs that may threaten recovery:

  • "I am so happy, everything is great". The 'pink cloud' syndrome in early recovery can lead to complacency
  • "I've made it". This sort of "arrived" thinking can also lead to letting down the addict's guard against a highly relapse-prone problem
  • "I deserve this". This sense of entitlement that makes the addict think he is entitled to position, money and respect can lead to blaming and stress

The Spiritual Journey of Recovery