Dr Carl Jung, spirituality and alcoholism

A little-known fact in the history of alcoholism and recovery is the influence of the great Swiss Psychiatrist Dr Carl Jung. While Dr Jung wasn’t directly responsible for the 12 Step recovery program as we know it today, he knew that an interdisciplinary form of treatment derived from spiritual principles was essential for the many alcoholics who would not respond to psychiatric therapy on its own.

Dr Jung’s father was a clergyman and so were some of his uncles. He was unarguably a man of faith but he was also a man of science. His faith constituted a connection that was unifying and inclusive. Perhaps that was why his influence on alcoholics was so profound. He advocated for practices that lifted the burden of guilt and selfishness from the alcoholic. He innovated the concept of a universal spirituality that was open and available to all, even those who weren’t affiliated to a religious organisation. Critically, Dr Jung’s understanding of spirituality was an alternative to the evangelism of organised religion that existed in the early 20th Century. It is no coincidence that his notion of non-denominational spirituality was adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

After Dr Jung achieved his medical degree in 1902, he worked at the psychiatric hospital that was a part of the University of Zurich and treated many alcoholics. Like most of the doctors and psychiatrists who were working in the field of alcoholism at the time, Dr Jung found working with alcoholics both demoralising and mostly unsuccessful.

Decades later and by then in private practice, Dr Jung was asked to treat the son of a wealthy investment banker and US senator named Rowland Hazard. By the time Rowland had reached Dr Jung, he was incapable of exercising any control over his drinking. For several months, Dr Jung and Rowland spent every day together in therapy. When Rowland left Dr Jung’s treatment for an overseas trip, he was confident that he would be able to stay sober, but in no time he was drunk again and he returned to the doctor for more help.

At their next meeting Dr Jung told Rowland that he thought his situation was hopeless. His grave assessment was not due to any misunderstanding of Rowland and his long held destructive obsession with alcohol. It was Dr Jung’s realisation that science couldn’t affect the fundamental change required to stop a drinker of Rowland’s type from drinking when the compulsion in him was greatest. He told Rowland that he’d applied the best that medicine and psychiatry had to offer and it hadn’t worked.

Frightened and grasping for a glimmer of hope, Rowland asked Dr Jung if he thought anything could be done to help him. Dr Jung told Rowland that he had known of people who had “experienced a conversion” as a result of becoming affiliated with a religious organisation and recovered. He added however, that “these recoveries due to a life-changing ‘vital spiritual experience’ were relatively rare.”

Many years later, in a letter to Bill Wison the co-founder of AA and architect of the 12 Steps, Dr Jung defined the way to such an experience in the same way that he might have explained it to Rowland Hazard at the time: “It can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to a higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through an education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism,” he wrote.

While on his search for this elusive experience, Rowland came across the Oxford Group, a fundamentalist Christian organisation that was starting to attract a number of alcoholics who, like Rowland, were turning to spirituality because other forms of treatment hadn’t worked.

The significance of the Oxford Group for people who have recovered from alcoholism cannot be underestimated. The movement provided a set of principles and a spiritual foundation that gave structure and accountability to people seeking recovery. With hindsight however, it is fair to say that the Oxford Group served as both angel and omen. The tenet of service inherent in its six steps was the spark that led to the world-wide movement that came to be Alcoholics Anonymous. But the Oxford Group’s evangelical Christian doctrine was never going to be inclusive enough for a rebellious group of drunks who, despite their plight, would find long term conformity to absolute honesty, purity, selflessness and love, too overbearing to be sustainable.

While Dr Jung’s expertise did not identify the physical craving that overwhelmed the alcoholic once they started to drink – that was identified by the late Dr William D Silkworth, chief physician at Towns Hospital in New York in the nineteen twenties and thirties – he did observe that through alcohol, the alcoholic was seeking personal unity and spiritual enlightenment. But he also understood that the values and principles that guided the lives of most people were unsatisfactory and therefore unattainable to the alcoholic. He identified how the fragile esteem of the alcoholic sought grandiosity and status. When those ambitions weren’t fulfilled – and they never could be to the extent that was required – the alcoholic would seek to alter their reality and drink to oblivion.

The emphasis of the 12 Steps was endorsed by Dr Jung in his correspondence with Bill Wilson. Dr Jung described the steps as the most appropriate antidote for intoxication. In response, Bill Wilson told Dr Jung that his concept of spirituality was the foundation to the success that AA and the 12 Steps were able to achieve.

It is estimated that two million people worldwide count themselves as a part of the recovery community but because twelve step facilitated recovery groups don’t require members to sign up or resign, the numbers may well be significantly higher. And those numbers don’t account for the number of people who have recovered from drug addiction using the twelve steps.

A more current endorsement for the twelve steps and twelve step facilitated recovery is provided by Cochrane, an unaffiliated, international network of researchers that perform systematic reviews of medical evidence to improve health outcomes and healthcare practices around the world.

A recent Cochrane Review into Twelve Step Facilitated recovery (TSFR) found “high certainty evidence” that TSF programs that were designed to increase participation in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can lead to higher rates of continuous abstinence over months and years compared to other treatments including cognitive behaviour therapy.

A twelve-step facilitated recovery program encourages participants to see their drinking and drug use as symptomatic of deeper, underlying character flaws. Once a person commences the steps they soon understand that their relationship to alcohol was fuelled by a complete inability to negotiate life on their willpower alone, no matter how powerful their intent and ambition might be. The inordinate demands that they place on themselves and those they are in relationship with is untenable. Eventually, regardless of how dedicated their loved ones and colleagues might be, they end up isolated.

Dr Stephen Jurd, director of the Sydney Retreat and leading authority on alcohol and drug addiction treatment in Australia says that the 12 Steps, as pioneered by AA, work because they are deep, powerful and comprehensive.

“The steps provide a template for personal renewal,” said Dr Jurd. “For the process to work you first need to admit that you are in trouble; to consider at length what you believe in and what motivates you, to move towards those motivations and then to do a complete reappraisal of your life,” he added.

The Sydney Retreat is a 30-day treatment program that is designed for the 50 or 60% of problem drinkers who don’t respond to the drug and alcohol counselling that is applied in most drug and alcohol treatment centres, or people who can’t afford the cost of rehab. in Australia. At the Sydney Retreat, residents enter a comfortable, sober living environment, and learn how to apply the principles of step by step sober living from clean and sober members of the recovery community.

“The Retreat is a peer led recovery approach that benefits from the lived experience of people in recovery. It introduces residents to the recovery community and most importantly, it provides the education and support for people so that they know that they are not alone,” said Dr Jurd.

The Sydney Retreat will be opening in early 2021 and you are welcome to contact us now to make enquiries or to make a booking.

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