addiction recovery
15 Jul 2021

People’s Experience of Spirituality in Addiction Recovery

ICHAS Student Marguerita O’Neill recently completed her dissertation on the lived experience of spiritual aspects of addiction recovery. For this research, Marguerita interviewed people who had completed the Cuan Mhuire residential treatment programme for addiction.

The dissertation was an exploration of the experiences of recovering addicts and the role if any, that spirituality plays in their lives. The two key concepts of addiction and spirituality in the title share a common attribute, which points to the uniqueness of the human being. Clients are deeply individual. Thus, in the complexity of human existence, it would seem reasonable to assume that every recovering addict has a distinctive story of their individual connection to or disconnect from spirituality. Consequently, Marguerita’s role was to listen to these unique narratives, analyse them, and to present and discuss them in light of relevant current literature.

Antonio Machado’s poem ‘Caminante, No Hay Camino/Wayfarer, there is no way’ (1982) is often quoted for its imagery of journeying.

He writes:

“The road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road” 

road addiction recovery

The aim of this research into the experience of spirituality in addiction recovery was to explore if and how spirituality plays a role in a person’s recovery from addiction. This aim was broken down into four specific objectives 

  1. To discover the meaning of spirituality for each person in recovery 
  2. To explore recovering addicts’ present experiences of spirituality 
  3. To see what role spirituality plays in recovery 
  4. To identify which elements of spirituality help the addict continue on their recovery journey

It was a qualitative, phenomenological study, where a purposive sample of six people in recovery from addiction were interviewed. 

All six people undertook their residential rehabilitation programmes with Cuan Mhuire (CM) and their recovery spans from two to thirteen years. 

Their interview transcripts were subsequently analysed using a combination of three coding approaches within a Miles et al. (2014) interactive data analysis mode (see table below).



The Rationale for a Dissertation on Spirituality in Addiction Recovery

Marguerita undertook her placement in Cuan Mhuire (CM) Bruree, Co. Limerick, one of the largest residential services for people recovering from addiction. During her practicum, she was struck by the strong presence of spirituality on the programme and pondered whether and how spirituality assists ‘unbinding’ (The ESV Bible, John 11:44) the addict. This is found in the description of Lazarus’ raising from the dead and this verb and concept was often used by the chaplain during his masses. As the author’s placement unfolded the questions in her head grew. She was reminded of Rilke’s passage to the young poet:

“Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer”

The author noted those questions and carried them with her to clinical supervision. Here were some of these questions:

  • Why do some women seem to become more spiritual on the recovery programme than others? 
  • Does the spiritual content of the programme aid people in their recovery? 
  • If this does happen, how does it happen? 

In observing the uniqueness of each woman in the unit there was a realization that spirituality for each woman no doubt had different hues and meanings. 

A qualitative approach was used in this research. With regard to the design within this, phenomenological research will be conducted. In phenomenological inquiries, the researcher outlines the experiences that participants have in relation to a phenomenon, using the participants’ descriptions. Often this design involves conducting interviews. 

Six interviews were conducted for this research and all six people completed their residential treatment with CM. 

In an attempt to keep this research manageable and within a realistic time frame, the author will focus on the following five themes in the presentation of her results:

  1. The meaning of spirituality in recovery
  2. The experiences of spirituality in the past, in the present, and the growth between those two periods
  3. The importance of spiritual practices in recovery
  4. How spiritual practices help people recover
  5. Maintaining spirituality in recovery


Key Findings

The wealth of data received produced many findings. Below are the main observations.

  • The meaning of spirituality in recovery was unique to an individual. Interviewees’ definitions of spirituality in recovery included:
    • Connection
    • Higher power
    • Belief in the universe
    • Inner peace
    • The bespoke nature of spirituality and its distinction from religion
  • Participants were acutely aware of the spiritual nature of the programme and its link to Sr. Consilio, the founder of CM. Participants discussed their experiences of meditation, rosary, mass, prayer, modules, affirmations, and synchronicity whilst in CM.
  • Participants linked part of their present spiritual activity to certain spiritual practices which were ingredients of the CM residential programme that they were on. The most used activity, which they retained was meditation.
  • Exercise, being in nature, and looking after one’s mental health were also listed by participants as current spiritual practices, which were not connected to their residential time in CM.
  • Many participants stressed the need for balance, variety, and individuality when practicing spirituality.
  • Participants were aware of their own spiritual growth as they continue their recovery journey and saw a parallel between their personal and spiritual growth.
  • All six participants deemed spiritual practices to be very important in their recovery.
  • With regard to how spiritual practices help people recover, many participants cited changes in their thinking, such as neuroplasticity, slowing down thoughts, coming out of a head level into a soul level, living in the present moment. Spiritual practices facilitate a relationship with self, an ability to connect with self and one’s emotions, rather than running from the self. The action of ‘handing over’ to a spiritual deity or Higher Power has kept many participants in recovery. Spirituality adds meaning and purpose to a person’s life, whereas addiction robs these essentials
  • There were many benefits, listed by the interviewees, of practicing spirituality. These included:
    • Self-nurturing
    • An improved acceptance of self and others
    • An ability to take stock of one’s life and its direction along with enhanced physical and mental well-being.
  • Participants believed that in order to maintain recovery it was necessary to take responsibility and do the ‘suggested things’, many of which have spiritual content.
  • Half of those interviewed stated that without a spiritual dimension there is no recovery.


Recommendations for Future Research

The list below contains the researcher’s recommendations for: 

(A) The CM model of treatment; numbers 1-3 

(B) The recovering addict; numbers 4-5 

(C) Herself; numbers 6-7 

(D) Future research: numbers 8-9.

  1. When people are participating in the many spiritual elements of the CM programme, explanations of why this is being done and the benefits of some could be provided.
  2. Interviewees now volunteering in CM, mentioned the difficulty some residents had in understanding the module content. Perhaps other ways could be explored to make this content more accessible, such as visual or auditory.
  3. Feedback (via focus groups or surveys) could be gathered from past residents regarding their experiences of all the spiritual practices during treatment. This information would be very useful in ascertaining which practices are most helpful for residents.
  4. On departing from CM residents are strongly encouraged to do the ‘suggested things’. Within these suggested things recovering addicts could emphasize continuing their spiritual practices.
  5. Recovering addicts possess a wealth of experience and wisdom. The sharing of this knowledge, in particular regarding spirituality, could be facilitated by past residents returning to CM centres and discussing their experiences. This would result in both present and past residents improving their understanding of the link between spirituality and recovery.
  6. That the researcher incorporates knowledge from this dissertation into her group meetings and one-to-one counselling sessions when she returns to practice.
  7. In order to learn more about aftercare support and explore spiritual content, it is recommended that the researcher attend these meetings.
  8. The converse of this research topic could be investigated. In other words, a study could be conducted on those who are in recovery and who specifically do not use spiritual practices, with the aim of exploring how these people stay in recovery without spirituality.
  9. Further research could be conducted into if and how the spiritual content of the CM ten modules keeps people in recovery. This research could narrow its focus on a cluster or on an individual module.

Marguerita recently completed the MA in Counselling and Psychotherapy at ICHAS.

Cuan Mhuire is Ireland’s largest voluntary provider of Addiction Treatment Services and Residential Rehabilitation. Its main objective is the rehabilitation of persons suffering from alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions. Their programme for addiction recovery is based on the philosophy of total abstinence and strives to restore the confidence, self-respect, and sense of responsibility of all participants.