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Addictive Behaviors

What is addiction? How can you tell if someone you care about is addicted to a mind-altering substance, activity, or process? And what should you do if you discover that they are? These are important questions—questions to which there are no simple answers. There are as many ways to describe addiction, as there are blind men patting the proverbial elephant–trying to characterize it in spite of their inability to see. Where addiction is concerned, most people are blinded by denial and delusion, prejudice and misinformation.

There’s a fine line between relating to a particular substance or activity in a moderate way and relating to it pathologically. Being fascinated by something or someone and wanting to spend as much time as possible pursuing it (or them) can be healthy. Such pursuits can be an outlet for creative energy and self-expression, a channel for learning and growth.

If one’s involvement with a person or process can be integrated into her real life, then it may not be a problem. But if she becomes preoccupied with something to the point that she is using it to avoid intolerable reality or sidestep the challenges and responsibilities of everyday living, then it could be a problem. Even positive habits can have negative outcomes. For example, getting plenty of exercise is good, but compulsive over-exercising is harmful and debilitating. Caring for others is wonderful, but caretaking them to the point that they become infantile is not.

The Acid Test

I use three “Rs” to evaluate behavior for its addictive potential. Does the behavior remove me from (1) reality, (2) responsibility, or (3) relationships? If so, I need to pay attention. Another useful question is: has interacting with a given substance, activity, or process become my sole source of meaning, identity, and value? If so, I may need to take a second look. The acid test is this: when the thing I’m doing to make myself feel good or gain a sense of security hurts me or someone I love, I’m probably an addict. If my behavior quits working and I can’t quit doing it, I am truly an addict.

Everything within me (pride, self-sufficiency, self-righteousness) wars against this notion. If faced with the addictive/compulsive nature of my activities, I may have to give up something I don’t want to give up. In the effort to abstain, I may learn that I’m not as powerful, strong-willed, good, righteous, or pure and noble as I thought. Our addictions bring us to our knees!

When Compulsions Cross the Line

Who among us has not felt the power of a destructive habit? People are at risk for addiction when they overwork (even on behalf of noble causes). They are at risk for addition when they overeat (even at church socials or family functions).  When people gossip (even in the name of love and Christian concern), they cross the line from healthy behavior to addictive when they lose control of how much or how long they “use” once they have begun. When he/she persists in doing the behavior, even though they know it’s hurting them or someone close to them, they are addicted. The same is true when they rationalize or minimize the consequences, or when their relationship to the substance or activity has become their sole source of identity.

Addiction isn’t about alcohol, drugs, food, or sex per se. It’s about motives and consequences. We have to look at these issues in order to determine whether or not someone’s behavior is addictive. Counselors no longer ask what or how much a person drinks, when or how often he drinks, or whether or not he has been arrested or lost a job to diagnose alcoholism. We ask why the individual drinks and what consequences have arisen from his/her drinking behavior.

Dependency disorders are rooted in the genetic makeup of previous generations and the pain and problems of the present. Experts agree that a combination of biological vulnerability, psychological liability, social stress, and spiritual emptiness create an addictive climate. Addiction is caused; it is not merely a random, foolish choice. The moralist within me rises to insist that addicts should know better, that they could stop drinking, drugging, overeating if they really wanted to. They just need to say no, try harder, pray harder, do right because it is right, etc. Once they learn the proper use of the will, they will be home free. That, of course, is a gross oversimplification!

Facing Denial

When addiction gets ahold of someone, it doesn’t let go easily. Addicts whose lives have been hijacked by a substance or activity are held hostage to denial. The term denial implies that someone has initial knowledge that he/she subsequently denies, when, in fact, denial prevents him/her from gaining insight in the first place. This frustrates the addict and anyone who tries to reach him/her. Denial forms an impenetrable barrier that renders the addict impervious to intervention. Talking to an addict about his acting-out behavior is like talking to a wall. He is in a trance-like state.

Don’t be surprised if your attempts to communicate with a person entangled in addiction are met with blank stares, minimization, rationalization, or vicious verbal attacks. You may be whipped by the wrath of an addict or alcoholic who is unwilling to give up their addictive behavior and resents all efforts to be “saved.” They may insist you are trying to control them. (The truth is many who try to help an addict save his or her life, marriage, or soul, are guilty of caretaking and controlling too much. They are as addicted to rescuing and fixing the addict as the addict is to his drugs).

This is commonly called co-dependence. What follows is an almost hopeless tangle of human emotion and out-of-control behavior on both sides. Getting help at this point is tremendously important.

Healing Measures

The first step toward healing is to find a viable, trained professional to do a clinical assessment. This is difficult, both for the addict and his/her loved ones. It isn’t easy to admit that we can’t manage our problems alone. Such an admission seems like a personal failure or a failure of faith, but it isn’t. Only those who are humble enough to ask for assistance get it. Counselors who specialize in assessment and treatment of addictions can make recommendations about the type of treatment needed—inpatient versus outpatient, individual versus group therapy, etc.

In the process of treatment planning, remember that addiction is a multi-faceted disease with medical, psychological, social, and spiritual implications. As such, it requires a multi-factorial approach—one that doesn’t overemphasize one aspect to the exclusion of the others. Treating one or two components is inadequate. Getting a physical, finding a counselor, engaging in Bible study, going back to school, getting a job, or making new friends will not be enough if taken singly. Think in terms of wholistic care.

Finding a Safe Place

The best, safest place to find viable help is 12-step groups. There are meetings for addicts (A.A., N.A., S.A., etc.) and for those affected by a loved one’s addiction (Al-anon, Nar-anon, S-Anon). These groups have developed a proven method for establishing and maintaining abstinence. They are not at odds with or in competition with religious organizations. Attendees are free to understand and experience God in their own way. Any recovery-seeker who is honest, open-minded and willing, can find help at such meetings. Attend at least six sessions before deciding whether or not to continue. Go with a determination to look for commonalities rather than differences, for similarities between your symptoms and theirs. Leave judgmentalism at the door. If you enter with a humble, teachable spirit, you’ll get the help you’re looking for and have a good time doing it.

If you enjoyed this you may like, The Heartache of Addiction

Carol Cannon writes from Kentucky where she was a co-founder of the Bridge to Recovery 

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About Carol Cannon

Carol Cannon

writes from Kentucky.

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