How spiritual awakenings help people recover from drug addiction
Doug McDonald spent the night alone in his car, smoking crack. The next day, deep in depression, he considered suicide. But instead he started his car and began to drive. He’s not sure what brought him there, but he wound up at the Church of the Harvest near his Fitchburg, Massachusetts home. He sat through the Sunday morning service, filled with grief and guilt. One of the church leaders invited anyone needing to talk to join him in a back room. McDonald went in and found two people waiting for him. Together they prayed and reassured McDonald that he wasn’t alone.
McDonald, 33, had already recovered from drug addiction once, during the six years he spent in a Springfield, Massachusetts prison where he experienced an epiphany. Reflecting on that moment, McDonald said, “Grace changes everything.” He stopped using drugs immediately. McDonald speaks of this critical moment in clichés and ambiguities that leave a fantastical impression easily dismissed by psychologists. But addiction counselors are starting to pay attention to such experiences, labeling them “quantum change” moments. Research shows that such turning points bring about profound changes that can help addicts build new, drug-free lives. Research also shows that an epiphany alone can’t always cure drug addiction. Clinical psychologists now realize that addicts can benefit from therapy after a pivotal transformation.
A lifetime of personal tragedies led McDonald into addiction. His father, an abusive alcoholic, abandoned his five children. Soon after, his mother attempted suicide. Separated from his siblings and placed into foster care, McDonald used drugs at the age of 12. McDonald eventually turned to crime to fund his cocaine habit. While serving a sentence for armed robbery, he checked out a bible from the Springfield Prison library and started to read. Though the details of his quantum change moment over fifteen years ago are fuzzy, the experience still resonates. “In one instant, Jesus Christ became real and personal to me,” he said.
Quantum change has several identifiable characteristics. Addiction counselor William L. White of Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington Illinois describes the change as all-inclusive, a “revolution in character.” Not all awakenings are religious; but most usually result in positive changes, such as a rejection of drugs or of other self-destructive behavior. The awakening imposes a new set of values on the addict in which drinking and drugs no longer fit in. In studies of subjects who have gone through such a change, many report a recollection of a presence, similar to the way Jesus Christ became “real” to McDonald.
Neuroscientist and psychologist Michael Persinger at Laurentian University in Ontario Canada is simulating this sense of a physical presence in the lab. His subjects don helmets that deliver a very weak magnetic force to the right temporal lobe, the seat of emotion in the brain. Subjects, who are otherwise sensory deprived, report sensing a presence beside them. For some, this sense of presence has such intensity that, when the field is removed, they shed tears. Persinger’s motivation to reproduce these experiences comes from anecdotal evidence suggesting epiphanies may help people recover from depression. If the experience can be replicated in a lab, he said, it might be usable as a treatment.
Though the pivotal moment of a quantum change itself is powerful, drug addiction is a tough competitor. McDonald’s epiphany changed his spirit, but his physical struggle continued. While incarcerated, McDonald devoted his time to prayer and bible study and kept away from the drugs he said were readily available from guards and cellmates. The prison chaplain and volunteers, who led services two to three times a week, structured and encouraged his new lifestyle. After his parole, however, McDonald struggled to keep the routine going. Within a year, he reconnected with friends who did not share his new beliefs. One day, he drove down to Chicopee, Massachusetts to meet friends at a bar. After several pitchers of beer, they passed around a few joints, then McDonald’s friend started craving crack. McDonald recalls heading out to the streets to get some. His friend smoked, and then turned to McDonald. “Here, try it,” McDonald remembers him saying.
That one hit sent McDonald spiraling into a three-year long relapse after seven drug-free years. He bought drugs whenever he had the cash, going at most two weeks without crack. “The first hit is such a rush; you spend the rest of the night chasing that high, trying to find it again. You can easily go through $300 to $500 in a night,” he said, shaking his head in awe at the power drugs had over his life.
To extend the transformation beyond the spirit into the physical, addicts who have experienced a quantum change need to connect to others who share their new value system. “The social dimension is stronger than the spiritual dimension,” said University of Maryland at Baltimore psychologist Carlo DiClemente. Some build this new social circle on their own, by attending church or making new social connections. According to White, counselors can shepherd addicts through the difficult physical transformation that follows the spiritual one by helping an addict connect to or build a new social circle of people who share the same values.
Addicts need the most help during relapse, but it is then that most services fail to provide it. Between fifty and seventy percent of addicts relapse during treatment, and 30 to 45 percent relapse completely. Rehabilitation centers have trouble helping relapsing patients because they seem like they are abusing the system. They miss appointments and “come in for three hots and a cot,” said DiClemente. To avoid wasting resources, Spectrum Health Systems in Westborough, Massachusetts enforces rules: if an addict misses a counseling session, he or she can’t return for six months. Churches also struggle. Congregants are leery of addicts because they carry the stigma of sin and crime and clergy have trouble judging the sincerity of an addict in the throes of recovery. McDonald was lucky; his church welcomed him back. He’s been drug free for eight years and a counselor to others for six. Yet even he turns recovering addicts out of his home, which he opens up to recovering addicts looking for a fresh start, if they start using drugs again.
While some hard-core drug users struggle with quantum change, clinical studies show that for many people, quantum changes last. In 1994, psychologists Janet C’de Baca from the Behavioral Health Research Center of the Southwest and Paul Wilbourne of The University of New Mexico interviewed 55 people who volunteered themselves as individuals who had experienced a transformational change. They followed up with a second round of interviews ten years later. By the second interview, an average of twenty years had elapsed since the participants’ pivotal moments. Not one of the participants had reverted to his or her old ways.
Psychologists have studied quantum change for over a century, but only recently have neuroscientists, such as Persinger, begun to try to explain mystical revelations in scientific terms. Persinger’s research, however, remains controversial. Scientists at Uppsala University in Sweden tried to recreate the sense of a presence, comparing the effects of magnetic fields on one group with a “sham-field” on a control group. They found that the magnetic field had no significant effect, according to an article in the April 29, 2005 issue of Neuroscience Letters. Persinger defended his research in a rebuttal, emphasizing that the Uppsala groups’ methods deviated from his recommendations. Yet Persinger also praised the “courage” of his colleagues at Uppsala and encouraged further attempts to use neuroscience to explain these mystical experiences that can lead to such remarkable recoveries.