The curse of addictions takes an enormous toll on people and society as a whole. Addictions take many forms and often are very destructive. How can a person break free?
"Hello, Joe?" It was Wednesday morning, and I was on the phone checking in with a client. "This is Joe," a voice replied.
"Hi, Joe. How are you today? How's your battle with drugs been going?"
"I guess I'm doing okay. I got a job since the last time we talked! I'm making about $10 an hour. That's not bad—considering my lack of education."
"Last time we talked you said you had been completely off drugs for a few days. Have you been able to stay off all of them?"
"Well, I am mellowing out with a beer right now." (It was just after 9 a.m. at the time!) "It helps me unwind and relax. But I'm really not drinking much. I still take a few hits [of marijuana] to get through each day, but nothing real serious."
Joe is certainly no stranger to addiction. Now in his mid-50s, Joe's problem with addictions began during his late teen years. His first two addictions were very common ones, tobacco (nicotine) and alcohol. It wasn't long, however, before marijuana joined the list.
A few years later "crack" (cocaine) and "crank" or "speed" (methamphetamine) were added. Joe says he's tried a bunch of other drugs as well, but he claims he isn't really addicted to them.
The problem of denial
Addiction is a serious and growing epidemic. It's no respecter of age, gender, ethnicity, economic level or anything else. The statistics are shocking. And amazingly, many who are addicted don't seem to be aware of it.
Denial is a common defense mechanism. Dr. Patrick Carnes describes an all-too-common reaction:
"When Dan's therapist told him that he was sexually addicted, he was outraged! He thought his therapist was exaggerating. Dan was certain his real problem was depression. He was simply down all the time, and he wanted to be happier. True, his life had left a trail of broken relationships and he had some sexual problems, but that was because he was so down all the time" (Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, 2001, pp. 177-178).
While there are many different addictions, the underlying thought process reflects a striking commonality between most all of them.
The addictive agent may be sex, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine ("meth"), cocaine, heroin, marijuana, sedatives, tranquilizers or hallucinogens such as LSD, PCP or ecstasy, or yet some other substance or behavior. Regardless of the specific agent, an addicted person often becomes very adept at denial. "Oh, I'm not addicted! I'm just going through a difficult time right now and need a bit of a boost. I can handle it."
Regardless of our specific personal struggle, refusing to admit we need help is often clearly recognized by other people as denial.
What is addiction?
Definitions of addiction vary within medicine and psychology. Although there is no general agreement on an exact definition, Dr. Howard Shaffer, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and editor of the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, identifies three distinctive behaviors that appear to be present with virtually all addictions:
• Behavior motivated by emotions, ranging from craving to compulsion.
• Continuance of participation in the behavior regardless of adverse consequences.
• Loss of control over the behavior.
Addictions are often classified into two broad categories: substance abuse and behavioral "compulsions." Obviously, not every person who has some difficulty or problem controlling either his or her use of a particular substance or behavior is presently addicted. However, since many addictions are progressive, what may be just a problem at first can become exacerbated and ultimately develop into an addiction.
One of the most prevalent addictions is to nicotine. Smoking is a major killer. Each year tobacco kills four times as many people as all other drugs, suicides, murders, accidents and AIDS put together.
Every six seconds a person dies from some kind of tobacco-related illness. Worldwide, 5 million people die prematurely every year as a result of smoking. In the United States alone, more than 400,000 people die from smoking each year while, in contrast, only 1,000 die from cocaine use.
Smoking can even be a gateway addiction. Smokers are about 14 times more likely to abuse alcohol, about 100 times more likely to use marijuana and about 32 times more likely to use cocaine.
The astronomical cost of alcohol abuse and addiction
Alcohol alone contributes to about 1.8 million deaths worldwide each year, with 100,000 of those in the United States. It is the third most common cause of death in developed countries, and the leading cause of disease and illness in some countries. About a third of alcohol-related deaths result from unintentional injuries.
Half of all U.S. traffic fatalities are related to the abuse of alcohol. The National Academy of Science estimates that alcoholism and alcohol abuse in the United States cost society $40 to $60 billion annually.
Currently, nearly 14 million Americans—1 in every 13 adults—abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. About 43 percent of U.S. adults—76 million people—have been exposed to alcoholism in the family.
It's estimated that more than 3 million American teens between the ages of 14 and 17 today are problem drinkers. More than 60 percent of high school seniors report having been drunk. And 31 percent say they had had five or more drinks in a row during the last two weeks.
Understanding other addictions
In his book Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, Dr. Patrick Carnes provides some important insight into identifying some of the common symptoms indicative of sexual addiction by comparing them with characteristics of other addictions.
"A way to understand sexual addicts... is to compare them with other types of addicts. A common definition of alcoholism or drug dependency is that a person has a pathological relationship with a mood-altering chemical.
"The alcoholic's relationship with alcohol becomes more important than family, friends, and work. The relationship progresses to the point where alcohol is necessary to feel normal. To feel 'normal' for the alcoholic is also to feel isolated and lonely, since the primary relationship he depends upon to feel adequate is with a chemical, not other people.
"Sexual addiction is parallel. The addict substitutes a sick relationship to an event or a process for a healthy relationship with others. The addict's relationship with a mood-altering experience becomes central to his life...
"Addicts progressively go through stages in which they retreat further from the reality of friends, family, and work. Their secret lives become more real than their public lives. What other people know is a false identity. Only the individual addict knows the shame of living a double life—the real world and the addict's world" (pp. 14-15).
The anatomy of addiction
How does addiction actually begin? Perhaps not surprisingly, it starts with the acceptance of delusional thought processes about oneself, allowing these to become rooted in one's personal belief system. As a consequence, addiction stems from faulty core beliefs about oneself that affect how reality is perceived.
Each person develops a belief system that is the sum of the assumptions, judgments and ideas that he or she holds to be true. This belief system contains potent family messages about such matters as one's value or worth, relationships, needs and sexuality. When these core beliefs become inaccurate or faulty, they have the potential to provide fundamental momentum necessary for the development of an addiction.
What are some of these irrational beliefs? Perhaps the most common is the perception of not being a worthwhile person. Addicts believe that other people would not value them as a person if everything about them was known, including their addiction.
They also believe that their choice, their agent of addiction, is their most important need. Obtaining this pleasure, or perhaps relief or distraction from pain, becomes life's greatest obsession. The addictive agent or behavior begins to be viewed as the only thing that makes their isolation bearable. Consequently, faulty personal core beliefs become the anchor points for intensifying degrees of addiction.
Interacting faulty beliefs produce distorted views of reality. Denial leads the list. Ignoring the problem, blaming others and minimizing the behaviors become part of the addict's defensive repertoire.
Arguments, excuses, justifications and circular reasoning abound in these impaired thinking patterns. Amazingly, even consequences such as lost jobs, arrests and broken relationships are either overlooked or attributed to factors other than the addiction.
Slicing through this mental fog to both recognize and deal with denial and self-deception is essential to recovery and breaking free from the powerful grip of addiction.
Biblical insight illustrates how understanding the progressive mental process can help one recognize and reject impaired thinking. "But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren" (James:1:14-16).
Help is available
Addiction is a cruel taskmaster. Feelings of shame, humiliation and personal failure can be overwhelming.
If we attempt to fight our battles all on our own, we are likely to make the struggle even more difficult. Family and friends can often provide support and honest feedback, both of which are very helpful. "Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken" (Ecclesiastes:4:12).
Seeking help from others is probably not easy for most of us. Swallowing our personal pride and being willing to seek out and accept help from others can be especially difficult.
As a counselor attempting to help others, I've often witnessed addiction's cycle of progressive devastation and destruction in a person's life. One man briefly described his gut-wrenching struggle with alcohol in a few heartfelt words: "Once I started drinking, I just couldn't seem to stop. It's been something like 20 years now. My wife divorced me, and then I lost my family too. After ignoring repeated warnings, I finally lost my job. I've really hit bottom. I guess I have nothing left to lose!"
It may seem totally hopeless, but it's never too late to reach out for help.
Battling pornography addiction
Sex sells! Pornography, one of the greatest sexual scourges afflicting human society today, is a $57 billion industry. Porn revenue is larger than the combined revenues of all professional football, baseball and basketball franchises! It also exceeds the combined revenues of the ABC, CBS and NBC television networks.
Overcoming an addiction to Internet pornography may require the use of special computer safeguards. For example, various software programs filter Internet content but still allow normal Web surfing. They can be used to block out offensive Web sites.
The person experiencing the problem should not be the one who installs this type of program, or he or she will easily know how to get around it. It is much better to have your spouse or some other trustworthy adult set up the software on your computer.
Three good ones are CyberPatrol (www.cyberpatrol.com), CyberSitter (www.cybersitter.com) and NetNanny (www.netnanny.com). They cost less than $40. All have free trials, so you can take each for a test-drive before you buy.
Breaking the hold of any addiction is very difficult. All forms of addiction are vicious because they further the inability to trust others. However, without help from others, the addict often fails to regain control because the addiction is self-perpetuating—it feeds on itself.
Also, many addictions are supercharged with social judgment, ridicule or fear. This makes seeking help especially difficult. Seeking professional help is often a wise decision, but special care should be taken by the client to find a compatible match in values, approach and methodology.
One of the best-proven paths to recovery for a number of different addictions is the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but adapted to some other particular addiction.
The 12-step program helps members restore their network of human relationships, especially in their family. Members are taught how to live the program, leaving behind their double life and its delusion and pain. Spouses and families are also given understanding and support through group meetings, such as those provided by Al-Anon.
National telephone hotlines are available to give help and advice for many of the myriad addictions that plague our societies today. Treatment programs, recovery programs and support groups can all be accessed to help break the vicious hold of addictions. Help is available, and there really is hope for recovery for those who will reach out and seek it.
As a counselor, I have become acutely aware of an additional source of help available to those who believe in a Higher Power. Battling a powerful addiction can make us feel alone, vulnerable, weak and very weary. Those who seek Jesus Christ's help in breaking free from an addiction can tap into a spiritual source of strength and help.
Jesus said simply, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew:11:28). Paul expressed the huge difference spiritual help had made in his life in his exultant words, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).
Don't allow addictions to wreak havoc and destruction in your life. Decide now that you will seek out the help you need. You can break free from addiction!
(This article originally apeared in the Nov-Dec 2007 Good News magazine.)
This article appears in the following topics: Addictions