The Spiritual Illness


June 18, 2020

By Andy F

Categories: Spirituality

In The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, the author of the book and one of the co-founders of AA, makes the following remarkable statement.

“When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”

BB p.64

What can the idea of a spiritual illness mean to an agnostic?

What can “spiritual malady” possibly mean to someone who doesn’t believe in God? Is the whole idea of someone being spiritually ill acceptable? These are questions that I have had to struggle with as an agnostic in AA. They have not always been easy to answer.

There are as many different definitions of what spirituality means as there are alcoholics in recovery. A spiritual awakening in recovery is a very personal experience.

Is a spiritual awakening dependent on a God awakening? Conversely, does a belief in God necessarily facilitate a spiritual awakening?  These are questions that everyone has to answer for themselves.

A spiritual awakening and a God awakening are not mutually inclusive

I believe that an awakening of the spirit and an awakening to a belief in God are not mutually inclusive. They are not the same thing. One is not necessarily dependent on the other.

From my own experience, I came to believe that Bill was right when he declared that alcoholism is a spiritual illness. I didn’t come to agree with Bill overnight. It was a long and sometimes painful journey. I survived thirteen years as a mostly dry and yet untreated alcoholic.

Time after time, I picked up that first drink. There was an overwhelming need to medicate my tortured mind and broken heart. Countless times as a dry drunk, I kept going back to the humiliating experience of having:

“no effective mental defense against the first drink.”

(BB p. 43

Restless, irritable, and discontent

I was undoubtedly a depressed person with little or no hope that things would ever change. Even before I started drinking, I was 

“restless, irritable, and discontented.”

(BB p. XXV111 

I became convinced that I was depressed because of my early life in foster care. Going into therapy seemed like a better alternative than getting a sponsor and working the steps. I was unable to be honest in therapy and continued blaming my childhood for my problems. 

The resentments about my early years were killing me. They made it impossible for me to stay sober. It wasn’t therapy that was the problem. It was me! I was so committed to the victim belief system that in therapy, I was getting worse, not better!

Ego collapse

Then, something unexpected happened after thirteen years on the merry-go-round of relapse. My ego collapsed utterly! Only then did I “become as open-minded to conviction and as willing to listen as the dying can be.” 

(12&12 p.24) 

I abandoned therapy and got a sponsor. It was over! I knew I was beaten! I became willing to follow the AA’s suggestions. My first sponsor was David B. He told me that by going to therapy, “I was trying to fix a spiritual problem with a psychological solution.” I eventually warmed to the idea that the twelve steps may be the tools that will help me to recover. After so many years of relapse, I now accepted that I was suffering from a “hopeless condition of mind and body.” (BB p.20). 

I felt hopeless and had the “Gift ODesperation.” (An acronym for God) I surrendered to David B’s suggestions. It meant letting go of my defiance and becoming teachable.

The 12 steps and therapy: – my experience

The steps offered did for me in one year what ten years of therapy failed to do. An almost miraculous reaction to a sponsor’s suggestions was evidence enough. It was proof positive that I had indeed been suffering from a spiritual malady. I am still an agnostic but have wholly embraced the idea that I have to apply spiritual principles to my life. They are nothing more than a life of love and service in AA. I have been given “a daily reprieve” from active alcoholism. It is entirely “contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition.”

BB p. 85

In fellowship,

Andy F

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