Why is there a spiritual side to becoming sober?

I am not a huge Alcoholics Anonymous person. Before getting sober, I went to maybe a dozen meetings and always found them to be a bit of a letdown. People in meetings are fairly friendly and inviting, but it’s still a social scene. They’re mostly there to talk to people they know, and it’s up to the newcomer to break in and make himself known…which is not exactly easy if you’re still within the throes of alcoholism (with all its attendance angst, depression, and social anxiety).

My Higher Power

After I quit drinking, I made the conscious decision to not go to any more meetings. I didn’t go to my first meeting as a sober person until my 1 year anniversary, and I never worked the program or got a sponsor or anything.

However, I’ve recently started attending meetings here in Baltimore! Not as any kind of desperate lunge for help, but more just because I felt like it’d be good to get out there, get involved in the sober community, etc. And it’s been pretty fun. Now that I’ve spent three years learning how to socialize, it’s really no problem to interact with a roomful of people with whom I have what’s actually a fairly strong connection.

For me, and for most people, the main sticking point with AA is its religiosity. It really is a program whose basis is asking “a Higher Power” to come down and cure your alcoholism. I mean, yeah, you can choose whatever you want as your Higher Power, but it’s pretty clear (if you look into the AA doctrine) that that’s a middle step. Eventually, you’re supposed to realize that your Higher Power is some kind of omnipotent, all-loving God.

When I was first getting sober, I used to joke that my Higher Power was Barack Obama. It made sense to me. Barack Obama is the most powerful being in the known universe. And I’m pretty sure that if he could do anything about it, he’d try to help me get sober.

But all joking aside, I do understand why AA is a spiritual program. Although there is a practical aspect to quitting drinking*, there’s also something spiritual about quitting drinking. Almost unwittingly, sobriety involves a reordering of your moral and ethical priorities.

AA is full of truisms. And one of the truisms is, “Your best thinking is what got you here” (i.e. don’t think, just follow the program). And there’s something to that. I lived life in a very straightforward manner: I wanted to be happy. And when I found something that made me happy, I used it until it almost destroyed my life.

But the happiness that it gave me was a real thing. It’s hard to overstate how euphoric I could sometimes be when I was drinking. Like, drinking made me as happy as any triumph in sober life–selling stories, getting into Hopkins, getting an agent–has ever made me. And it was an effortless happiness that I could get week after week!

That’s a pretty crazy thing to turn your back on. And when you do something like that, you’re saying–whether you realize it or not–that the physical emotion that we call happiness–is not the most important thing in your life.

Which leaves kind of a void. What is the most important thing in my life?

I can’t really say….

…but it’s definitely not God.

*The main practical aspect of quitting drinking is just the knowledge–strange and unintuitive as it may seem–that if you take even one drink you’re probably going to end up spiraling into full-blown relapse. There’s probably some science for why this is, but I think it’s just because alcoholism is a fairly strong compulsion that you mainly beat down through pure desperation. You’re so scared of the consequences that you’re able to resist the craving to drink and, over time, the craving decreases. However, the brain remembers what it was like to be addicted. If you take even one drink, the craving comes back at near its original strength, but, since your desperation has also waned, you’re not quite as able to fight it. The counterintuitive part of this is that it’s really hard to remember what it was like to need to drink once you don’t need to anymore. Once you’re in control, it’s hard to believe that anything could take that control away. However, I have no doubt that if I took a few drinks, I’d be out of control in no time.

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