Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 5—Addiction and Recovery

Phone Addicts, by Jeanne Menjoulet from Wikimedia Commons

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
    Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
    Who has redness of eyes?
Those who linger late over wine,
    those who keep trying mixed wines.

(Proverbs 23:29-35)

On Monday I wrote about habits and our unique ability to program ourselves. This ability has a downside that we call “addiction.”

I need to point out that describing someone else as “an addict” is no longer considered appropriate. The label is totalizing, and implies a value judgment instead of seeing someone as a human being with a substance abuse problem, or a human being struggling with addiction. If we frame addiction as a dis-ease or a disability, if we recognize it as a public health problem, then the we start to recognize the word “addict” as pejorative, like calling someone a “cripple” or a “junkie.” But if someone chooses to refer to themselves as an addict or a recovering addict, it can be a term of solidarity or empowerment.

I think it’s important to talk about our choice of these terms because of the role that we assume “choice” plays in addiction. I pointed out last week that our behavior feels free or constrained based on our subjective experience of power. We can debate whether or not we have free will or our actions or predetermined, but that discussion is philosophical and abstract. Free will is a subjective experience: I only feel free if I can consider my options and weigh the consequences.

Addiction has several components, of course. First, our bodies’ adaptability and their ability to maintain homeostasis means that we can develop physical dependence on a substance. If I don’t drink my customary cup of coffee in the morning, I may get a headache or feel sluggish. It’s not the kind of withdrawal that will kill me, and I am relatively free to say the suffering is worth it if I want to wean myself off of my caffeine dependence. Someone with a severe physical dependence on alcohol or heroine, on the other hand, can die if they discontinue using. Detox for severe addiction often requires the use of supplemental drugs or medical care.

Second, there is a social component. People with a substance abuse issue may warp their relationships to get the substance they want or to hide their addiction. They may steal from family members. They may lie to hide their problem. Addicted friends may supply them with their product. This relational component has what we call “circular causality.” There may be friends or family members who adjust their behavior to the pattern as well, or it may be a relationship issue (abuse, manipulation, or codependence) that contributed to the addiction in the first place. Either way, relationships adjust to support the addiction instead of the person. In order to overcome the addiction, relationships may need to be renegotiated, severed, or mended.

Third, there is a neurobiological component, which is the part we think we have the most control over. Even here, our control is limited. Addiction is frequently not about will power at all. Using brain scans, we can see that people make decisions before they are conscious of their decision. We actually decide before we are aware of deciding. For example, when I began intermittent fasting, I decided that I wouldn’t eat from 8:00 PM until noon the following day. But I found myself in the kitchen one morning eating tortilla chips before I knew I was hungry without any memory of deciding to break my fast. There was no “decision” I was consciously aware of, so I never had an opportunity to exert my “will power.” I was on autopilot. These automatic, unconscious decisions are why I can drive to a destination with little memory of the actions I made to get there.

Finally, a component that doesn’t get enough acknowledgment is the systemic one. The World Health Organization defines problem drinking as more than two beers a day for a man, or one beer a day for a woman. Here’s the thing, though: If everyone in the world drank this much alcohol, the alcohol industry would go out of business. In other words, there are a few people drinking so much that they take up the slack for the rest of the world! Alcoholism is what keeps the alcohol industry afloat. There is a lot of money devoted to advertising alcohol and getting it into the hands of addicts. When an alcohol advertisement includes the admonition, “Drink Responsibly,” you ought to remember that they don’t mean it. The only reason they include this language is so that the public will be reluctant to regulate the industry. It is a way to remind us that whether or not someone drinks is their “individual choice.” In a similar way, big tobacco spent millions of dollars to lie to the American public about their own research on the addictive quality of cigarettes. Addiction is big business.

If we zoom out to this macroscopic level, we can see that we as a society are addicted to fossil fuels, to cell phones and social media. The social addictions are ways that we choose to be unfree. We program our social behavior and reinforce it systemically with subsidies and policies. I would argue further that we are addicted to violence and violent religion.

The process of healing addiction involves not only reprogramming ourselves, but also restructuring our environment. We have to create new internal and external processes that will bring our unconscious decisions into our awareness. Only when we can become mindful of our actions and consider them do we begin to feel free. Only when we become aware of the larger forces at play can we help to free others.

Freedom-Giver, free us from our addictions, both personal and social.
Help us embrace our power to choose.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.