Magical Thinking

The link between spirituality and a successful recovery.

Early in my medical career, when I began recognizing the life-destroying consequences of addiction in my patients, I fell into magical thinking. I was sure addiction was a bad habit, one that could be fixed by a little will power and a motivating lecture from me.

After I learned that addiction was a disease with a well-established treatment plan, there were still elements of magical thinking. I accepted the standard thinking of the day that a thirty-day treatment program followed by AA and NA meetings was all anyone needed to start on the road to recovery—and stay there.

Today, we know that thirty days sober is often just long enough to create chaos in the brain of an addicted individual. We also know that the true benefits of 12-Step programs come not from mere attendance but from the deepening of spiritual practices to which these programs can lead, such as prayer, meditation, and careful working of the 12-Steps.

Working with my co-author James B., as well as homeless addicted men, I have come to believe that the process of recovery is a long slow journey, with many stops and starts. The brokenness of body and spirit that James describes so well in The Craving Brain: Science, Spirituality and the Road to Recovery, and in his other writings here, are neither easily nor quickly repaired.

Uncontrollable craving is a brain injury caused by frequent exposure to high levels of addicting chemicals. The addicted brain is focused on keeping the brain supplied with sufficient levels of alcohol or other drugs to avoid the unbearable agitation of withdrawal. It is never easy to manage an addiction on top of the demands of ordinary life, and addicted individuals develop compulsive strategies and behaviors that further impair the brain’s delicate wiring. In the process, they damage—sometimes irreparably—their personal and professional lives.

How is it possible then to recover from this terrible, circular disorder, with its comprehensive injury to the body, mind, and spirit? How can the rewired addicted brain be rewired again, this time in the service of a healthy and productive life?

The emerging partnership between medical science and spiritual practices provides some important answers. Although there is no magic bullet, researchers are discovering new drugs to help addicted individuals control their craving. These drugs include naltrexone for alcohol addiction and methadone for prescription pill and heroin addiction.

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Sandra Bravo