The Spiritual Illness
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.”
Big Book Chapter Five “How it works” p.77 – First edition.
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 the life of any alcoholic 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 dependent on the other.
From my own experience as an alcoholic, 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 journey. I survived thirteen years as a mostly dry and yet untreated alcoholic in AA.
Time after time, I was condemned to pick up that first drink again. There was an overwhelming need to medicate my tortured mind and broken heart. Countless times in my dry drunk years, I kept going back to the humiliating experience of having “no effective mental defense against the first drink.”
(BB – Chapter Three, “More about alcoholism” p.55, first edition, last paragraph of the chapter).
Restless, irritable, and discontent
I was undoubtedly a very unhappy person, with or without alcohol. Even before I started drinking, I was continuously “restless, irritable, and discontented.”
(BB “The doctor’s opinion” p. XXV111 4th edition)
I became convinced that I was depressed and unhappy because of my childhood. Going into therapy seemed like a better alternative than getting a sponsor and working through the steps. I was unable to get honest in therapy and continued playing the ‘blame game.’ The resentments about my childhood were killing me. This made it impossible for me to stay sober. It wasn’t therapy that was the problem. It was me! I actually got worse going to therapy. Mentally, I was getting worse and worse as a dry alcoholic!
Then, something unexpected happened after thirteen years on the merry-go-round of my dry drunk. My ego collapsed completely! “Only then” did I “become as open-minded to conviction and as willing to listen as the dying can be.”
(12&12 Step One, p.24)
I abandoned therapy and got a sponsor. It was over, and I knew I was well and truly beaten! I became willing to follow the AA’s suggestions. David B told me that by going to therapy, “I was trying to fix a spiritual problem with a psychological solution.” I eventually accepted that the twelve steps are the spiritual tools that will help me to recover from this “hopeless condition of mind and body.” (BB There Is a Solution, p.20). I felt hopeless and had the “Gift Of Desperation.” (An acronym for God) As an agnostic, I surrendered to the spiritual solution offered to me by David B. That meant letting go of my arrogance and defiance and becoming teachable.
The 12 steps and therapy: – my experience
The steps offered as spiritual tools did for me in one year what more than ten years of therapy failed to do. This was evidence enough. It was proof positive that I had indeed been suffering from a spiritual malady. I am still an agnostic but have completely embraced the idea that I have to apply spiritual principles to my life if I want to be sober and happy.
They are quite simply a daily surrender of my will and a concerted effort to offer love and service to others. What I really have is “a daily reprieve” from my mental instability. It is entirely “contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition.”
(BB Chapter 6 “Into Action” p. 85 4th edition)