Anonymous, 12 Step programs have helped millions recover from addictions. Yet it is also possible to use the spiritual underpinnings of the programs to avoid addiction-related problems instead of dealing with them, says researcher and psychotherapist Ingrid Mathieu in her new book. We explored these topics in an interview.
Rosenberg: In your recently published book, Recovering Spirituality, you address the concept of spiritual bypass in which recovering people can use spiritual practices to sidestep emotional work. You write that because addicts are sensitive and lean toward "symptom relief," a recovering person may "use the program just as he used his drug of choice."
Mathieu: Yes, a lot of times addicts can expect great happiness, the proverbial "cash and prizes," after they get clean and sober and when it doesn't occur, they can attempt to flee from uncomfortable feelings via spiritual bypass. I write in Recovering Spirituality that rather than feeling like they are failures or not working their program correctly, the recovery experience should be reframed to include pain and feelings of being "stuck."
Rosenberg: Some of the people whose stories you recount in the book use prayer, meditation, chanting and service work to, as you put it, "check out from life." Others try to manipulate the outcomes of prayer or even their higher power.
Mathieu: Yes, prayer when it's fused with financial gain can become less about a connection with a higher power and more of an attempt to control. When using all of the tools in the program, I encourage people to discern if they are attempting to "check out" (fix, change, remove, ignore their issues) or to "check in" (be present to their issues and experiences).
Rosenberg: In other stories you recount, a person uses a ninth step amend to an old lover as a bid to rekindle romantic feelings and another gets re-hooked on smoking. Is getting addicted to another things, "changing rooms on the Titanic" as it is often called, part of the spiritual bypass?
Mathieu: I don't want to create the message that if you are working your program the "right way," you won't experience blind spots in your step-work, or that you won't use food or another substance to some degree. We can't avoid these things entirely and sometimes we need some "defending." Defenses, like spiritual bypass or using other things to fill the void, can be both adaptive and maladaptive. In other words, defenses aren't all bad, and they can sometimes have a positive outcome. They can cause us to hit another bottom, which invites us to look at some of our original reasons for drinking and drugging. Recovery is a perpetual process of peeling back layers of the onion.