In 2012, I completed a research project on the spiritual transformation that alcoholic men go through in the first year of their sobriety. I called it Celebrating Serenity: The Spiritual Journey of Alcoholic Men Throughout Their First Year in Recovery. The men were between the ages of 19 and 56, from a variety of religious/spiritual backgrounds, and were between 4 and 12 months sober. There were many interesting aspects to the study, some that corroborated pieces of information known about what men go through in recovery, and one important new piece of data that showed the true nature of spiritual change for these men.
The first finding was that men in early recovery recognize they are coming off a period in their lives that several of them called the “spiritual wasteland.” Buffeted by the strong winds of discord within their families, troubles at work, an erosion of their faith in themselves and God, and the misery of not being able to stop drinking at any cost, these men described the period just before getting sober as being incredibly painful. Suicide was not an uncommon thought as a way to end the downward spiral of their lives. Recognizing the uncontrollable spin they were in made matters worse. They despaired at every finding anything that could help them.
But, for each man, something happened at one point in their lives when they began to feel there was hope. It usually came upon them suddenly. They saw that things could not get any worse: They recognized that no human being, system, or institution could help them, but that perhaps something outside themselves could work to heal them. This realization was sometimes fleeting or it could be a thought that lasted for several days. But, it was, by almost every standard, a spiritual experience: It relied on information thought and felt that was beyond the realm of ordinary experience for them and certainly not bound by physical or material constraints. It turned out to be the first tier of a spiritual breakthrough.
For each of the men, the second tier of this spiritual experience took longer to develop. Each man found that, once they stopped drinking due largely to the first tier spiritual experience, they gradually developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the spiritual nature of their recovery. Several of them lived on a “pink cloud” for quite a few months where they felt wonderful for the first time in years. Others felt a gradual deepening of their relationship with God, as they understood God. But, all of the men could describe in great detail what it felt like to be connected to some power greater than themselves that was helping them stay sober.
The sudden onset of a spiritual experience that gradually deepened led invariably to the third finding of the study – they developed a personal relationship with a power greater than themselves. All but one man called this power “God”, and the other (a Native American) termed it the “Great Spirit”. But, regardless of the name, the lasting impression for each man was that he now had the ability to communicate in a personal way with this power. Some felt the power guided their every decision. Others, felt it was available to them whenever the need arose to help them deal with life’s situations or overcome a powerful urge to drink. One man had the palpable feeling that his God was with him constantly. Another said it was like having a good friend who understood him better than anyone else. Regardless of the manifestation, this personal relationship with the higher power they identified was the single most tangible result of their spiritual breakthrough.
Each man also recognized that to maintain this experience, he had to engage in some physical activity that was grounded in his newly found faith. All of the men were involved in some level of community service. Most worked through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) with still-suffering alcoholics who needed to hear the message of recovery as lived by these men. The need to put their faith into action was a hallmark of the men’s experience and defined for them the way in which they would give back what most of them said was so freely given to them – sobriety.
The information the study provided about the wasteland that active alcoholism is, and the practice of good works by helping other alcoholics recover, was not new information for scholars of recovery. But, the idea that the spiritual transformation occurs at two distinct levels was new information. While many writers over the years have suggested that it is an either/or proposition – either a sudden realization, or a gradual awakening – this study showed that it is really both. It seems that the onset of a spiritual experience occurs quite suddenly with a thought or internal dialogue about alcoholism and the possibility of recovery, followed by a longer and deeper period when that idea is refined and crystallized.
The results of this study are really good news for anyone in early recovery. They demonstrate that there is a common experience before one stops drinking, and a very tactile sense of spiritual change once it is felt that one cannot go on drinking. Armed with this hopeful information, recovering men can, as the AA Big Book says, “trudge the road of Happy Destiny.”