There is a common myth in recovery circles, often perpetuated by the literal interpretation of the literature, that long term sobriety equals a life of being “happy, joyous and free.” However, the reality of “life on life’s terms” often brings with it suffering and adversity and the related negative impact in terms of our biopsychosocial and spiritual functioning.
My experience in long-term recovery from alcohol and drug addiction has been difficult and my happiness and functioning have been greatly affected by chronic illness, which has been both mental and physical in nature. Since my early 40’s I have particularly suffered with a chronic physical illness which has adversely affected me mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually. Often addiction itself has long term consequences upon our health that we have to live with in recovery, and many in the rooms of AA, NA, etc., are affected in this respect.
“Living with chronic illnesses often engenders powerful and distressing emotions. It’s normal and understandable to feel: self-pity and resentment in relation to being chronically unwell; frustrated and angry due to being uncomfortable and/or in pain; anxious and fearful about what activities will increase pain and discomfort, and about the future—whether the illness/condition will get worse and what will happen if it does; sad and depressed because of the losses related to necessary changes in physical capacity, lifestyle, and how you see yourself; and guilt and shame at not being able to take care of certain responsibilities or be as physically and emotionally available to others as you would like to be.” (1)
The negative effects of living with chronic illness can and do limit one’s functioning and can prevent sufferers from fully engaging with recovery practices, in particular social connection and meeting attendance. Addiction is often referred to as a “disease of disconnection”, and so building healthy and authentic relationships and working with others in recovery is of vital importance to our long-term health and well-being.
Chronic illness can also prevent the sufferer from connecting with their inner world in a healthy and positive way. It can be very difficult to think and reflect clearly and peacefully if you’re physically unwell or suffering from anxiety and depression. Spiritual reflection and practice can also be negatively affected, and relating to a “loving Higher Power”, of any description, can be very difficult when we’re in the throes of suffering, illness and self-pity.
Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), suffered with a depressive condition for extensive periods of his recovery. At times, his functioning was severely affected by this illness and he was unhelpfully accused by some members of AA of “not working the program” properly. Bill sometimes felt that his depression did prevent him from practising his chosen ideals. However, he also tended to see the positive side of his suffering, and this attitude was significantly influenced by his spiritual adviser Father Ed Dowling, the Jesuit priest Bill developed a long-term relationship with throughout most of his recovery.
Father Ed was familiar with chronic illness as he suffered from an arthritic condition which was very painful. He was also a compulsive overeater and suffered the health consequences of his addiction to food. Father Dowling subscribed to the philosophy that “pain was the touchstone of all spiritual progress” (2), and he passed this outlook onto Bill, who could often see this principle at work in his own life and in the lives of those he came into contact with…
“How heartily we AA’s can agree with him [referring to Father Ed], for we know the pains of drinking had to come before sobriety, and emotional turmoil before serenity.” (3)
This view that suffering and adversity can lead to positive change, particularly of a spiritual nature, is a commonly held belief that can be traced back for thousands of years, and it’s also supported by modern day transpersonal research into this area. (4) Since the 1990’s the related concept of ‘post traumatic growth’ has become a popular area of study. The Friedrich Nietzsche aphorism comes to mind…“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) sometimes occurs (but not always) when an individual experiences a traumatic event or very challenging life circumstances, and as a result of the suffering endured, and the struggle to adjust to their new reality, the person becomes more than they were before the trauma or challenging life circumstances took place. Research into PTG suggests that people tend to change for the better in five general areas: a different outlook upon life with new possibilities for themselves; a renewed appreciation for life; increased personal strength and maturity; improvements in their relationships with others and an increased sense of compassion; and a deepening of their spiritual lives, which can also involve a significant change in one’s belief system.
Illness quite often forces change which can be negative and/or positive in nature. If we can adapt to the adverse effects of chronic illness and disability, which often depends upon the nature of our character and attitude towards life, and the support we are given, and in particular, if we are able to find meaning and purpose within our suffering, we can then be motivated to learn new ways of living and relating to others which are positive and that promote our growth and development as human beings. Finding a “silver lining” in adversity is not that uncommon.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
In relation to the positive consequences of living with chronic illness in recovery, I personally feel that I’ve grown in certain respects as a result of my ongoing suffering. I would suggest that both physical and mental hardship have made me more humble over time and more in touch with my own vulnerability. I’ve also developed my capacity for empathy and compassion towards others due to my own health difficulties, and therefore a willingness to be of service if possible. This in turn takes me away from self-centredness and self-pity which are generally unhelpful; although Illness and suffering have also forced me to turn inwardly and connect with my resilient nature and spirit, discovering hidden potential and strengths in the process.
The reality for myself of living with chronic illness in recovery is that my health difficulties have had negative effects and limitations upon my functioning, and continue to cause me suffering, but they’ve also led to some of the “promises” suggested by Bill Wilson on pages 83-84 of the ‘Big Book’ (5).
Addiction is an illness that is traumatic and challenging in and of itself, and has led many, who’ve been able to recover, to experience the miracle of post-traumatic growth. Recovery groups and the principles underpinning the Twelve Steps have helped me cope with and adapt to living ‘life on life’s terms’, and continue to do so, and therefore hopefully I’ll keep on growing in the face of my difficult life challenges, as I see many others do.
Step Twelve of the AA program suggests that we “practise these principles in all our affairs”, which includes in all circumstances and with all people. The experience of people in recovery shows me that this is still possible if we work to be able to do so, despite our suffering and adversity.
“Furthermore, how shall we come to terms with seeming failure or success? Can we now accept and adjust to either without despair or pride? Can we accept poverty, sickness, loneliness, and bereavement with courage and serenity? Can we steadfastly content ourselves with the humbler, yet sometimes more durable, satisfactions when the brighter, more glittering achievements are denied us? The A.A. answer to these questions about living is “Yes, all of these things are possible.” We know this because we see monotony, pain, and even calamity turned to good use by those who keep on trying to practice A.A.’s Twelve Steps. And if these are facts of life for the many alcoholics who have recovered in A.A., they can become the facts of life for many more.” (6)
Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions
‘Learning to Live Well with Chronic Illness’. By Dan Mager MSW, Psychology Today, Posted Jan 13 2016.
‘The Soul of Sponsorship’, p37, by Robert Fitzgerald, S.J.
‘Spiritual Alchemy: When Trauma and Turmoil Lead to Spiritual Awakening’. By Dr Steve Taylor.
Alcoholics Anonymous, pp 83-84, 3rd AAWS, Inc.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 112, AAWS, Inc.