Harold G. Koenig, M.D. and professor at Duke University Medical Center, talked with Church Health Reader about the power of addiction and how spirituality factors into recovery. He is the author of Religion, Spirituality and Medicine: Where Science and Spirituality Meet and The Healing Power of Faith as well as co-author of Counseling Persons with Addictions: A Handbook for Pastors and Other Helping Professionals.
John Shorb: What happens to a person when they are addicted to alcohol or a drug?
Harold Koenig: When a person is addicted to a substance - whether it be alcohol or drugs - that addiction literally takes over their will power. It is so overwhelming to the person that they lose control over their ability to do what they want to do. They see that this drug, or alcohol, is killing them and destroying their family, and their social network - their lives and their jobs and they are helpless to do anything about it. It is different than it would be with somebody with depression or somebody with schizophrenia - although recovering from those mental disorders, there’s also a lot of helplessness there because those are often times driven by biological factors that a person has trouble getting a hold of as well.
How can spirituality factor into treatment of addiction?
This issue of being taken over by the addiction is critical and particularly important in terms of the treatment. People who want to do this on their own - “I can knock the habit,” “I don’t have to smoke,” “I can stop” - they can not, most people can not. Once they are addicted they are unable to do that because their will is paralyzed by this substance. Spiritual approaches become almost necessary for many people to get through this. The social approaches do not work all that well, the psychological, the cognitive - behavioral therapies don’t work - it requires something more, almost a giving up of one’s will, a surrendering of one’s will to a greater power, the higher power, God, whatever you want to call it. It is the surrendering of the will that generates this power to recover, it’s almost hard to understand how it happens - certainly from a psychological standpoint. From a spiritual standpoint we understand that God is greater than that which is in the world and therefore when a will is surrendered to God, God then uses his power to help the person to heal, to recover. But that process of surrendering the will is a tricky thing. In an addiction-based treatment such as Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the steps is to surrender the will to a higher power, and then it’s a living out of that surrender by then loving your neighbor, by caring for your neighbor, who is also struggling with this addiction. So, this issue of surrender that’s critical I think.
Could you describe the surrendering process further?
This process of surrendering means carrying this out in your life, by loving your neighbor in a very specific way, using the gifts you’ve received from God in recovering from the addiction. Then the expectation is that you don’t just take it all and go along your happy way - you do something with it. And part of that means that you’re a mentor for someone else who is struggling or who may have a hard time giving up their will in this manner to God.
How do you see this relating to Christianity?
Yes, what’s interesting is that those two key components - the surrendering to God and loving your neighbor - is exactly what the Christian message is. It’s what Jesus told the lawyer who asked him how to get into heaven. It’s the same message to all of us: it’s the surrender of your will to God and the living out of that by caring for and loving your neighbor.
John Shorb is the Editor of Church Health Reader.