The word “ritual” is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as: A formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way. An act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time. Many people relate the term to religious practice and most in recovery have grown up in a particular faith tradition that incorporates such acts; for example, praying the rosary in Catholicism, lighting the Shabbos candles on Friday night in Judaism, reciting prayers five times a day in the Islamic tradition, or chanting the Gayatri Mantra in Hinduism. They provide comfort and familiarity and offer generational links. Sometimes they are done in solitude, sometimes in community. Each is designed to bring the individual closer to the Divine or even to merge with it. Consider the same to be so in addiction, whether it is substance-based or process-oriented such as spending, hoarding, self-injury, eating disorders, gambling or pornography. If you have engaged in any of these activities, then you know that they don’t occur at random, even if they seem opportunistic or impulsive at times, and that there is an order to your behaviors.
Recovery as Religious Conversion
In my work as an addictions counselor, I have had conversations with clients who have described in detail the anticipation, the fantasizing, the planning and plotting, the stories they intended to tell family and friends, in order to justify their choices, as well as how they imagine it will feel when they get their fix. They glorify the physical sensations, the letting go when taking the first sip, hit or snort, the emotional rush, the mental stimulation or numbing. One described the sensation of using heroin as feeling like being wrapped in a warm blanket. That was some of what he craved, beyond the wild and sometimes crazy (his word) things he did in the throes of his addiction. I have heard religious practices being described in that way as well: ecstasy to the point of losing oneself. As I listen, it is as if they are re-living it, sometimes shaking their heads in amazement that it took up so much of their time and energy to perform the rituals as if they are literally worshipping the addiction. Perhaps surrendering the ritual is almost like a conversion from one set of beliefs to another.
Finding Healthy Replacement Rituals
Enter rituals of recovery. When someone takes the first step out of the darkness of addiction into the light of healing, they may in turn take the first 3 steps of the 12 step program. “We admitted we were powerless over (the addiction)-that our lives had become unmanageable.” “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” “Made a decision to turn our lives and our will over to the care of God as we understood (God).” What if the fervency with which they once engaged in self-destructive and mind-altering behaviors could be devoted to renewal and regeneration? Would it be as soul satisfying? Andrew Newberg, the author of How God Changes Your Brain, describes what transpires in the mind when the neuro-biological aspects of addiction are intervened upon by spiritual awakening. Since recovery is a lifelong process, what might have been considered an interminably drawn out ordeal could become transcendent and ultimately life-altering. Following is a list of recovery rituals that I recommend:
- Daily prayer (whatever communing with Higher Power might look like for the individual)
- Gratitude list
- Listening to uplifting music
- Watching inspirational shows
- “Playouts” at the gym, which are far more fun than calling them workouts
- Other physical activities, such as dancing or sports
- Time in nature
- Creative acts (art, music, dance or writing)
- Digging in the dirt, planting and/or tending a garden
- Being of service (volunteering)
- Healthy eating
- Nurturing, non-sexual touch, such as sharing hugs or experiencing massage
- Social activities with sober supports
- Attending 12 step meetings
- Engaging a sponsor
- Learning a new skill
Vivienne Edwards, who is a recovery coach based in Oregon, created a series of what she calls DAR (Drug Abandonment Rituals). These are full sensory interventions that take the place of the destructive elements of addictions. From her website, some examples include: Your Sense of Smell: There will be certain smells associated with using any drug, so a strong and very different smell needs to be used. Our sense of smell can carry some deep and vivid memories in ways that can surprise us. For example, scented candles, perfume, scented oils, wick sticks, cloves or cinnamon, or incense can be used. Your Sense of Taste: Drugs often give a particular taste in the mouth, so a strong different taste is needed. Our sense of taste tells us that things are sweet, salty, sour, pungent, astringent or bitter. Try strong cough drops such as Fisherman’s Friend or peppermints, candies flavored with violet or cinnamon, or hot chocolate with a shot of flavored syrup. Your Sense of Sight: Fixing a drug contains many visual stimuli, so equally strong visual stimuli need to be substituted. Consider colored lights or candles, a brightly colored table cover, bright mug, flowers, pictures, photographs and so on. Setting up your DAR will give you good visual input, but you can also include anything you like to look at such as photos, statues, colored glass, a brightly colored bandana to keep your DAR in, or anything that does not carry reminders of previous drug use. Your Sense of Hearing: Sounds play a big part in our lives although we don’t always notice them. You may not be conscious of the hiss of a lighter but at a subconscious level it may trigger the need for a hit. I suggest music of some kind but make sure it is quite different from anything you have been used to listening to. Your Sense of Touch: Touch is an important part of anything you do. If you choose well on the senses listed above, then setting up your DAR will involve a certain amount of touch. But if you need more things to do with your hands, try the following: sand, pebbles, polished stones, fishing flies, beads, modeling clay, stringing paperclips, or silly putty. Use what feels good to you. Doing your DAR in a place that is totally unlike the places where you used drugs will help greatly. With each of these newly developed or revitalized recovery rituals, those who seek sustained sobriety may just find themselves in an even more soul satisfying series of experiences, rather than lose themselves in the inevitable descent into self-destruction.