By Brenden Pacheco

Getting sober engenders existential angst almost as surely as drinking leads to hangovers. While detox was marked mostly by patients waking to clearer minds, rehab saw many waking to religious and spiritual literacy. And the program anticipates this, quickly offering solutions to existential questions with God-isms and answers of faith-based clichés. But I don’t buy it.

So where does that leave me? If I’m definitely not religious, am I even spiritual?

I started to lose touch with my inner philosopher while in the throes of alcoholism. It’s not just that I don’t believe in God and am secure in my agnosticism, I had stopped asking questions about what would help me become a more complete person — what would bring me closer to peace so I wasn’t boozing to black out? In what areas do I need deeper understanding to be able to say, in any given moment, ‘I’m OK’?

For many, the path is religious. And for many, it works beautifully. But it never took for me. Growing up in a somewhat Christian environment, hearing things like ‘life is great now that I’ve let Jesus in my heart,’ I felt conflicted. When I think of religion and spirituality, I can’t help but picture the baby Jesus — a fat white baby with bat’s wings and a Cheshire smile flitting around at eye level. Why would I want that thing in my HOUSE, never mind in my heart?

And yet, in some ways, I’m quite envious of religious and spiritual folk who can find such contentment in faith. I feel it even when the spiritual say ‘the Universe has a way of working things out.’ It just doesn’t fit for me.

“The programs are Christian in tradition but have somewhat grown to accommodate my atheistic and agnostic brethren”

But now that I’m sober and I’ve reacquainted myself with the philosopher within, the bigger questions do need some attention.

The programs are Christian in tradition but have somewhat grown to accommodate my atheistic and agnostic brethren. Instead of urging participants to find God and connect with Jesus, they use terms like ‘god of your understanding.’ It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t cut it for me because the implication is still surrendering to something that exists beyond our senses and influence.

The bit about choosing ‘the god of your understanding’ over religion is a tempting compromise, but it still elides a fundamental problem: choice. The neat thing about agnosticism is that this perspective rests not necessarily on active disbelief, but on accepting that should something as grand as god exist, it is beyond the reach of human conception. So we accept our inability to see something so sublime in scale, and we still continue to function and thrive.

Unless you’re an alcoholic like me.

Us addicts tend to rely on substances in moments of fear — especially fear of the unknown. When things happen to us that are beyond our control, drugs and alcohol can help us forget and help us feel better about how small we can be as individuals.

When religion steps in, it can replace substances and offer answers like ‘it’s God’s plan;’ and the spiritual tend to say ’everything happens for a reason.’ When we don’t have religion or spirituality, the paradox of feeling so unimportant and unable to effect positive change is that we know we’re all there is. So, when the answer is always drugs and alcohol, it’s hard to make any kind of existential progress. Subsequently, hardships and difficulties can feel as though we’ve failed on all fronts. Like the fault is our own.

And sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t.

“The way I see it, therapy is kind of like dating in that we all communicate in different frequencies”

At the risk of sounding solipsistic, a specific kind of psychotherapy has begun to offer some great help in this area. Like a good Millennial, I’ve had several therapists since my teens. The way I see it, therapy is kind of like dating in that we all communicate in different frequencies, so once we find someone who’s frequency is compatible with our own, we know it’s a relationship worth pursuing.

The very ideas of ‘frequencies’ and ‘energies’ always got under my skin. But getting sober has pushed me to really pay attention to the ways people make me feel, to figure out who in my life is making it more or less difficult to be myself. And having gone through these recovery programs, I pay closer attention to the quality of what people say — that is, how much of what they’re saying is from care and wisdom? And how much of it is simply a regurgitation of something they once heard and thought sounded nice, like a useful soundbite?

My current therapist works with the same organization that saw me through detox, rehab, a dual-diagnosis partial hospitalization program, etc. (Yeah, they’ve been good to me.) Luckily, this organization does not deal exclusively in the Christian programs, so they offer the expertise of educated professionals who can speak to the science behind practices that may be counted as spiritual — yoga, meditation, CBT — without ever needing to use that term. (Also like a good Millennial, I’m a pretty label- and ritual-averse, and prefer to look at the quality and benefits of individual practices rather than to any sets of behaviors or beliefs that seem prescribed or even remotely traditional.)

Once we start dealing with abstract ideas like ‘frequencies,’ the world of spirituality is pretty unavoidable — I’ll admit it, begrudgingly. If spirituality is the active belief in and tending to of a quality of life that exists beyond the material, the measurable, and the actionable — does it make me spiritual to strive to see beyond someone’s words and actions, and also beyond my own?

In sobriety, I’ve also found in myself a rejuvenated go-getter and the sense-of-self to recognize how annoying this can be. So I preemptively sent her an email, warning of my tendencies to control therapy sessions to quell my anxieties. I think she was impressed.

She also sees through my arch observations and the red herrings I try passing for epiphanies.

“I’m learning, is much more than simply physical and mental health”

So she’s taken those tools away from me in a form of hypnotherapy that deals with Internal Family Systems (IFS). Here, the philosophy is that we develop coping mechanisms — substance abuse, excessive self-blame, avoidant wordplay — to protect the Self that sticks around even after we don’t need them. It’s what fuels my depression and makes me feel alone when I can’t pour myself a drink when I feel unable to effect positive change in my life. By addressing these mechanisms through acknowledgment and acceptance, we can retire them and continue to grow.

This growth, I’m learning, is much more than simply physical and mental health. Be it the Freudian Unconscious, the Jungian Shadow, the Soul, whatever, the Me that is more than destructive behavior and automatic response to stimuli needs tending.

And so far, it’s working.

When I find myself asking what I can do to be a more complete person, I can say ‘thank you’ to the parts of me that tell me I’m alone and nothing matters and there’s no God looking out for my wellbeing. And then I can push through that and remind myself that writing and making art and sharing myself with others are the closest things to feeling whole that I’ve ever known. And that it’s enough for now.

But still, the program likes to hear things put in its own terms and parts of me still like to please, despite my better judgment. So as far as church goes, I’ll take Rothko’s Chapel. Prayers and chants? North’s score in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’ I’ll take that racing-heart, is-this-the-sublime? feelings over booze.

And the god of my understanding? Recognizing — below the frequencies of anxieties that have failed to grow with me in sobriety — that actually, I am ok.

If that makes me spiritual, so be it. But I’m not convinced.