Causes and Symptoms

Now that we understand that for an addict, using is actually his or her best attempt at treating the real problem, we must ask: What is that real problem? In so many words, we have already said that the addict has a fundamental inability to live peacefully and contentedly, and uses his or her drug of choice to induce a temporary state of relief from his or her deep, incessant discomfort with life.

But that still doesn’t really answer the question. It still doesn’t tell us what the problem really is. What is it that makes the addict unable to handle life in the first place? If we were speaking of a physical malady—say congestive heart failure—we wouldn’t say that the person’s problem is a pain in the chest. The pain is a symptom. The problem is that the coronary artery is clogged shut. So, too, the fact that addicts are miserable when not using is a symptom of the problem. Addicts already know well and good how to treat the symptoms: they use. The only way an addict can ever have a real choice to stop self-medicating the symptoms is if he or she can understand and treat the real problem that gives rise to the symptoms to begin with.

The Spiritual Model

This is the story of an alcoholic whose story indirectly came to change the lives of millions of alcoholics and addicts around the world. His story is not well known, not even among those for whose recovery they have to thank him.

Rowland Hazard was born in 1881 to a rich and powerful family of Rhode Island mill owners. He graduated from Yale in 1903, served in the Rhode Island state senate, and ran a number of businesses. All that time, he drank compulsively while his family tried to hide the problem. He had been to one sanitarium after another, but to no avail. Rowland would go on long drinking sprees that would often take him to exotic locales all around the world. At some point, in the early 1930s, Rowland found himself in Zurich, Switzerland, receiving the very best help that money could buy under the care of the world-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung.

With Jung’s counseling, Rowland finally thought he had his problem licked. After his release, however, he immediately relapsed, and returned to the doctor a broken man. Jung told Rowland that his condition was hopeless, and that he had never seen an alcoholic of his type recover. At that moment Rowland was profoundly shaken. He asked the doctor whether there were ever any exceptions. Jung responded that for an alcoholic of the type he was, instances of recovery were so rare as to be considered an anomaly. However, whenever such isolated cases had occurred, they had something in common. Jung then referred to what he called “a vital spiritual experience.” Though he admitted that he did not exactly understand how it worked, he knew that the “vital spiritual experience” was sufficiently powerful to effect no less than a complete “psychic change” in the individuals who had them. Jung said that he had actually been trying therapeutically to induce the onset of such an experience in Rowland, but had been unsuccessful.

Said the doctor:

To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 27)

Rowland was encouraged by the knowledge that his problem might have a solution, even one as unusual as the doctor had described, but he was puzzled. He was already a religious man, and asked why that had not already led to the solution that the doctor described. Jung explained that mere religious affiliation had nothing to do with what he meant. Rowland was in need of a vital spiritual experience, not ceremony and doctrine, but an actual encounter with the divine. Jung suggested that Rowland immerse himself in a spiritual environment, earnestly seek a higher consciousness and pray that something would happen.

Armed with this information, Rowland set out to effect a radical spiritual change within himself. He found eventual success toward this end by joining the Oxford Group, a popular religious movement of the day that stressed rigorously honest self-reflection, prayer and meditation.

The story continues. In 1934 Ebby Thacher, son of a prominent New York family, was about to be locked up because of his alcoholism. The presiding judge in the case had a son who was a member of the same Oxford Group, and a friend of Rowland. The judge’s son, along with Rowland and another Oxford Group member, convinced the judge to release Ebby to their care, whereupon they prevailed upon him to seek a spiritual solution to his drinking problem, as Rowland had done. Ebby pursued their path and found the results to be astonishingly effective.

This same Ebby was a childhood friend of a man named Bill Wilson, who was also a chronic drunk. Bill was out of work, depressed and in dangerously bad health. One day, Ebby appeared in Bill’s Brooklyn home and transmitted to him the spiritual principles upon which he was managing to stay happily sober. Bill was put off by what he perceived to be his friend’s religious zeal, but Ebby assured him that he was not seeking to convert him. Ebby told Bill that theology and dogma were not necessary. All he needed to do in order to begin was to be willing to have a relationship with God, and to live according to some basic spiritual principles. What’s more, all this could be done regardless of whatever conception of God he had.

The basic ideas that Ebby conveyed to Bill, as Bill would later recall, were simple. Here they are, as transcribed from one of Bill’s public AA talks:

We admitted we were licked.

We got honest with ourselves.

We talked it over with another person.

We made amends to those we had harmed.

We tried to carry this message to others with no thought of reward.

We prayed to whatever God we thought there was.

These simple and elementary concepts were not religious but spiritual. The difference was not lost on Bill.

Ebby’s visit planted a seed in Bill that would soon sprout into a vital spiritual experience of Bill’s own. For Bill, the experience was dramatic and sudden, but its results seemed to be long-lasting. For the first time in his life, Bill was staying sober. Months later he would meet Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic physician from Akron, Ohio, and transmit to him the message that he had learned from Ebby, that Ebby got from Rowland and the Oxford Group, and that Rowland received from Carl Jung.

Through the collaboration of Wilson and Smith, these principles would develop into the program called Alcoholics Anonymous, the essence of which is summed up in the program’s Twelve Steps. In the ensuing decades, these same Steps would be applied to recovery from other addictions, and work just as effectively.

For the first time in history, there was a successful treatment for the disease of addiction—a treatment that was neither physical nor psychological, nor even religious, but spiritual. By living according to basic spiritual principles, addicts were not just able to remain abstinent, but also to lead happy and productive lives while doing so.

The Real Problem

Now we are in a better position to answer the question we asked earlier. What is the real problem that the addict is attempting to treat by using? The real problem, as we can now understand, is a spiritual problem, as evidenced by the fact that the real solution is a spiritual solution.

Let us now ask: what is the exact nature of the spiritual problem? What does it mean to be spiritually sick? In other words, what is the root cause of the spiritual illness called addiction?

Let’s continue with the story.

In 1961, decades after Bill was first introduced to Jung’s spiritual approach to treating alcoholism, when AA had already bloomed into a massive movement all over the world, Bill wrote Jung a long-overdue letter of thanks. In the letter, he marvels at how Jung had managed to ascertain that the only real treatment for alcoholism was a spiritual one, especially since it was such a radical stance at the time.

In his response, Jung begins by admitting that he had to overcome his own reluctance to offer such counsel, because it was indeed considered unconventional at the time. He then goes on to recall his impressions of his former patient, Rowland, and of alcoholism in general:

[The patient’s] craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God. How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days? (Letter to Wilson, 1961)

These are heavy concepts—“the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness,” “union with God.” It’s understandable how it might seem presumptuous to use such terms when describing a condition that most people see as no more than a chemical dependency, a mental disorder or a lack of will. But history would bear testimony to the fact that Jung’s understanding of the problem, and its solution as later applied by Wilson, were astoundingly accurate.

Sick for God

So now we have our answer. The addict is sick with a yearning for God, and can become well only by having some contact with God.

It sounds grandiose, I know. What are we saying? That all addicts are really supersensitive, spiritually passionate seekers?

Not exactly.

More aptly stated: All human beings have a deep-seated need for spiritual contact. But most people can also live their lives without it. Addicts are people who, for whatever reason, are unsettled to the core, and cannot handle the business of life without maintaining a continual and acute awareness of the divine. Absent such higher consciousness, they are miserable and sick. What makes their dilemma fatal is that their drug of choice will actually produce in them short-term effects that simulate the release and relief that can really be had only through spiritual consciousness. Consequently, the only real treatment for their condition is to make sure that they get the “real thing” instead of self-medicating with the fake stuff, for if they do not get the real thing, they have no choice but to take the fake stuff.

In other words, for most people, spirituality is a luxury, something to be sought after more “basic” needs are met. Addicts are somehow different in this respect, in that for them there can be nothing resembling a normal life if their spiritual needs are not met first.

Of course, we don’t mean to say that only addicts are capable of truly yearning for God. In Song of Songs (2:5), King Solomon describes the feeling of being “lovesick” for God. That is not the point, anyway. It is not the longing for spiritual wholeness that causes addiction. What makes an addict an addict is the combination of two factors: (1) they are profoundly disturbed and unsettled with their own existence as an entity apart from God; and (2) for reasons unknown, they can somehow briefly simulate relief from this condition by taking their drug of choice.

This is the trap of addiction, and it is the real problem we have been trying to define. The real problem that lies at the core of addiction is that addicts are people who are in dire need of a relationship with God but are able to substitute fulfilling this need with a behavior that is essentially self-destructive.

Really, the drug of choice becomes the addict’s god. This is not meant as mere rhetoric. Addiction is idol worship in the most fundamental sense of the term—turning to something other than God to do for you what only God can do.

Facsimile of Dr. C.G. Jung’s letter to AA Co-founder, Bill Wilson.
Facsimile of Dr. C.G. Jung’s letter to AA Co-founder, Bill Wilson.

The Double-Header

I once had a double speaking engagement at a synagogue that also hosted a Jewish recovery program. From 7 to 8 o’clock I was the speaker at the regular synagogue function, and then I walked to the other side of the building and spoke to the addicts from 8 until 9.

I spoke to the first group about some basic ideas of Jewish spirituality, and how they apply to living a better life. After speaking to that group, I felt like a sales clerk whose client indulges him to give a long, elaborate pitch for an item that they both know the client isn’t going to buy. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was off that night. Whatever the reason, I felt that most of the crowd really had no use for the ideas that I was trying to communicate.

I headed down the hall to the other group, and prepared myself to deliver what was essentially the same lecture that I had just given, only with some recovery language thrown in. When I got to the room full of addicts, I was suddenly struck with a wonderful feeling. I probably get this same vibe every time I speak to addicts, but this time the contrast—having just spoken to another group minutes earlier—was immediate.

These people weren’t interested in seeing me put on a show. They were there to hear me as if their very lives depended on it. Mind you, they were not tense or melancholic. They were enjoying themselves. Nevertheless, at the same time, there was a collective sense of urgency.

As I started talking, I found myself speaking about what Jung described as “the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness . . . the union with God.” “Why do we yearn to be at one with God?” I asked. “What is it about us that makes us feel uncomfortable as an entity apart from God?” I proceeded to explain what Chassidut (the mystical teachings of the Chassidic masters) says about the very nature of separate consciousness being a painful delusion, an error in thinking that must be rejected in favor of the absolute truth that we do not really have an existence that is independent from the all-encompassing, all-pervasive Unity of All.

I cannot claim that these were my exact words verbatim, but it went pretty much like this:

When God created the world, what were His raw materials? What did He start with? The answer, of course, is nothing. The world came into being at some point, but before that, it was nothing. God was always Something even before He created the world, and will always be Something with or without a world; but the world, and everything in it, was once nothing.

There’s a joke about a team of scientists who, studying the Book of Genesis, decide they can replicate the creation of man just as it was done the first time by God. They gather up a pile of dirt and hook it up to a big machine by electrodes. The leader of the team opens his Bible and reads, “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” As they are about to throw the switch and animate this lump of earth into a living, breathing man, a voice booms out from Heaven, “Hey! Get your own dirt!”

Human creativity is not real creation. As humans, we can change one something into another something. Whether we speak of the artist who turns paint and canvas into a masterpiece, or a builder who turns steel and glass into a skyscraper, we are talking about the manipulation of form, not the creation of new existence. Indeed, the First Law of Thermodynamics is that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed; they can only be changed into different forms.

Yet, if we believe that the universe has a beginning, we must say that God started by taking nothing and making it into something. In so doing, God did not just change the form of nothing. He overrode its very essence. The very definition of “nothing” is that it does not exist. By forcing nothing to be something, God made nothing be the very opposite of what it really is.

Now, when we form one something into another, it usually keeps the shape we put it in. A loaf of bread isn’t going to disassemble itself back into flour and water. A plastic cup isn’t going to revert to petroleum. Why? Because for flour and water to be bread, and for petroleum to be a plastic cup, is no imposition at all upon the essence of flour and water or petroleum. Their essence hasn’t changed, only their form.

When God turned nothing into something, He completely changed its essence. Every moment that nothing exists as a something is unnatural. Indeed, nothing would not even continue to be something unless it’s constantly being forced to do so, which is why we say that creation is necessarily an ongoing process.

At any rate, if you exist, then you are a something. But that’s only because God is creating you that way at this instant. Your essence is to be nothing. Or, should we say, your true and natural state is to have no existence of your own, and to exist only as He exists, within the totality and oneness of God.

If that’s the case, then it explains the mystery of why it can be painful just to exist.

Our somethingness is not our true essence. Oneness is our true essence. Not that it bothers all of us equally. Some people can live with it. Some people can’t. But the people who can live with it are sitting down the hall in the other room, while the people who can’t are sitting right here!

Excerpted from God of Our Understanding—Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, by Rabbi Shais Taub.