Reflections on a Journey Through Modern Psychology

We cracked the nut of self-deceiving
Turned away from loveless living
Dispelled pursuit of blind receiving
Found a peace in gracious giving

When I was a teenager, I read a book called “Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am?” written by a Jesuit named John Powell. The book sparked a personal interest in psychology and I became an academic. But I learned more about the “human condition” in the “real world” than I did in academia. That is partly because I am a slow learner as well as a fast one. I became a low-bottom alcoholic losing everything except my driving licence and a recoverable health. I am now in my tenth year of sobriety thanks in no way to my intelligence or my education – but to newfound friends who showed me – just when it mattered most – how to think and live a day at a time. In recovery I still do some academic work (teaching postgraduates how to do research in the social sciences) and have found time (or been given it) to write “Nine Seahorses: A Plea For Sanity In Three Parts” – my own effort at accounting for what matters in a human existence – and how what is meaningful to us may be pursued.

Sigmund Freud tends to be over-credited – probably because he his ideas have an instant appeal (sex sells). His model of mind (Ego, Superego, Id) can be traced to Plato’s tri-partite soul (in Ancient Greece) , and the modern word “psychology” can be traced back to Steven Blankaart in 1693. The famous 19th century scientist Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz (i) inspired Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt who pioneered scientific psychology (eventually “Behaviorism”) and (ii) was a colleague of Ernst Wilhelm (Ritter von) Brücke who taught Freud as a medical student in Vienna. Since Behaviorists and descendants of Freud tend to have divergent views about what makes us humans tick, we may say that 21st century psychology is still a disintegrated and unfinished discipline (not at all referring to the same hymn sheet).

We are still reeling from the Scientific Revolution when one type of human authority was usurped by another. Even though a cultural rift between religion and science is still with us, it remains possible to create a single coherent account of human sanity. “Nine Seahorses” achieves this by weaving

Behaviorist principles with the theoretical basis for Transactional Analysis (or TA – the brainchild of Eric Berne who was a psychoanalyst and thereby a descendant of Freud) – all the while recognising the importance and significance of the sprituality to be discovered in the 12-step programmes. Such a blended narrative may yet be recognised as “moral psychology” – an expression used by Dr William Duncan Silkworth in AA’s seminal “Big Book”.

All we have to do is be open-minded
– even if that means being willing to consider that science
may not (nor ever will) have all the answers.

It seems from our personal and our collective experience that we must exercise faith (as in Steps 3 and 11) in order to realise its effects. In science, that kind of belief is known (disparagingly) as a “circular argument”. But we know about the validity of faith at first hand. So how do we square these circles? The answer is that we don’t need to. All we have to do is be open-minded – even if that means being willing to consider that science may not (nor ever will) have all the answers. This doesn’t mean that huge swathes of what we cannot grasp presently in the psychological world; e.g., early learning, the formation of the human personality and how the “life script” can be rewritten in psychotherapy (or – even better – unremunerated love or sponsorship) can’t be understood better in the future with more science, experimentation and research. Whilst religion and spirituality can and do overlap, religion is usually defined by denomination, establishment, ritual and human authority – all of which are not necessary for the a broader spirituality (although choice of a personal religion is naturally and perfectly permissible). One day, when all human beings have matured spiritually, perhaps we will no longer have recourse to any human authority at all – because we will have taken sufficient responsibility for ourselves and for each other.

The cultural contrast between empiricism (the philosophical basis for science) in its radical mode (may be accompanied by atheism) and spirituality is so vast that the matching of a helper (or sponsor) and a helpee’s (or sponsoree’s) cultural traditions may be of critical significance in the relationship and its meaning. To the extent that this is true, it is no use believing that any old helper can help any new client successfully. There is an ancient (probably Buddhist) wisdom which proclaims, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. I have no doubt that this happens all the time in recovery and is to be had for only the seeking of it (on both sides). It happened to me. Shaun W (a Geordie from the North-East of England) is still my sponsor. I am an academic and Shaun learns to read. Recovery doesn’t need brains.

For certain people, the only response to addiction that sustains a life is abstinence combined with a “spiritual program”. The argument for abstinence is a wisdom decades old – but applies only to those who submit themselves to it. Abstinence is only meaningful to someone who has surrendered to it (rather than someone upon whom it has been imposed). There are plenty of folks who come to realise that without someone having helped them towards such a solution they would have expired beneath the ground. I am one of those. We know that achieving abstinence is a journey, and that the statistics include a deal of slippage depending on how they are calculated. Those statistics include a lot of deaths too. But “it works if you work it”.

Addicts can become addicted non-chemically

Offering addicts alternative ecstasies, including “spiritual highs”, may not be wise – for it poses the potential of replacing one addiction with another. Addicts can become addicted non-chemically. There are plenty of examples including sex, shopping, exercise and gambling. Whilst spiritual-ecstasy is not the same as substance-ecstasy and that – to the addict – it is chemical ectasy that portends tragedy most powerfully, the recovered addict is usually better off on a “spiritual even keel”. It is not so much that ecstatic states should be avoided altogether; it is just that the addict is disposed to be obsessed with them – and that an even keel is probably a better aim. I am against nothing at all that a person finds truly healing in their path towards maturity, but the addict en route to a more balanced life may not be easily able to discern “healing” from “comfortable” in the early days. We are best off keeping our feet on the ground.

We can find ways to be true to ourselves even if the world out there seems wrongly motivated. Much of our public (government) policy on substance misuse is founded on “Not In My Back Yard” – understandable, after a fashion, as politicians would not remain in office without democratic votes. “Harm reduction” – as the policy alternative to abstinence – will become outdated once the broader public comes to realise that many of its tenets are founded on politicians’ and civil servants’ careers rather than geared towards the healing of distressed lives for its own sake. But that needn’t upset us in the meanwhile. Deceptions in the “external” world are like the “internal” misalignments that can tear a morally-awry addict apart at the seams. In recovery, we learn that “transcendent trust” in a Higher Power is the (only) antidote to the fears which lie like a “corrosive thread” beneath our conflicts, resentments and other failures in relationship with others. Thankfully the 12-step program presents an opportunity – not merely for survival past a “rock bottom” – but for a congruency within our personalities
that can render us “spiritually bullet-proof”. This is the kind of rock-steady satisfaction with existence envisaged by some of the greatest thinkers in history: from Socrates (“know thyself”) to Shakespeare (Polonius to Laertes in “Hamlet”: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man”). When we have worked the 12 steps in earnest, even our sponsor cannot steal from us what we have banked in our “spiritual vaults” (not that I have ever heard of a sponsor who did not desire absolute safety and good spiritual progress – if not perfection – for every sponsoree). The same remedies, naturally, are just as available to our nearer and broader communities (including their political representatives) – as they are to ourselves as individuals.

By Martin Nieland, Ph.D.