Understanding addictionWritten by Wendy Kittlitz
What's inside this article
Humans are created with innate needs: to feel safe and secure, to love and be loved, to connect deeply with others, and to engage in meaningful activity. In a pre-Fallen world, we were all designed to relate intimately with God, with significant others, and to have purpose by using the unique gifts and abilities given to each of us.
Sadly, we now live in a world impacted by the Fall, a world in which God’s design is being distorted around us and the consequences of that impact many areas of our lives.
Addictions are an example of this. Many things that represent temptations for misuse (such as alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gaming, technology, etc.) have positive uses in the right context and in the right proportions. But for the addict, they become dangerous and harmful in a variety of ways. The word “addiction” comes from a Latin term which includes the idea of being “enslaved” and that is exactly what happens when the need for the object of an addiction becomes overwhelming.
When does something that has legitimate uses cross the line into addiction? It becomes a problem when it causes harm to you or others.
For instance when counsellors do alcohol or drug screening, we assess not just the quantity of the substance consumed but the impact on the person socially, vocationally, physically and mentally. We ask questions like, “Has someone told you that your substance use is a problem?”
Causes of addiction
Addiction is complex with many causes that often overlap. The following are a few factors that make people vulnerable to becoming addicted.
The first is heredity. There is strong evidence that addictions run in families. There is a biological component to addictions and the individual who recognizes a history of addiction in their family would be wise to be attuned to that risk and put strong boundaries around their own choices, especially regarding substances.
A second is developmental. No one starts out intending to become addicted, but our brains are wired with a complex set of neurochemicals that impact every part of our beings. Dopamine is one of those chemicals that produces good feelings, often called feelings of euphoria. Drugs and alcohol stimulate the production of dopamine, creating a strong sense of well-being, albeit temporarily. The same effect can happen with the use of pornography, illicit sexual activity, gambling, food and even over-working. The high is pleasurable and we begin to crave the feeling. After a while seeking the sensation becomes an out-of-control need and we keep doing it in spite of increasingly negative consequences.
A third is adverse social exposures. This could be abuse, trauma or stress, especially coupled with a lack of healthy supports. People who experience difficult events can be deeply impacted by them and can misuse addictions to cope with the pain of those experiences. Not everyone who has such experiences will develop an addiction, but it might be argued that they would be more vulnerable to do so.
The lure of addiction
Whatever the cause, it’s important to ask what purpose the addiction is serving in the life of an addict. Quite simply, for a short period of time, the object of the addiction makes a person feel better. It masks their pain; it offers a way to cope; it feels like a way to meet their needs. The problem is that it does not offer real solutions or meet the real underlying need. And as they continually seek this short-term solution, they face a myriad of other consequences, from relational to vocational, financial to legal, and so on.
So, why would anyone choose this? Addictions are not as simple as making a choice. Once something has crossed the line to being an addiction, the brain has literally been rewired by repeated exposure to the object to actually crave it. This is why simply telling yourself or your loved one to stop the behaviour is rarely enough. The person may genuinely see the harm and be motivated to stop but without miraculous intervention (which does thankfully happen in some cases), other treatment options are usually needed.
Addictions are ultimately ways of trying to get legitimate needs met with illegitimate means.
A case study
As an example, let’s look at Leon. Leon wants to feel loved and needed but his wife is preoccupied with work, babies and caring for her elderly father. Instead of having a mature conversation with her about his desires and needs to receive some of her time and attention, he pouts, gets angry (which pushes her further away), starts looking at porn and eventually pays a woman to “get his needs met.” This pattern repeats until he is deeply addicted to sex. He has entered into a cycle of wrong choices. When the truth comes to light, pain pours in. The marriage, their bank account and their reputation are all severely damaged when he is arrested for solicitation.
Now, to be clear, who was and is responsible for meeting Leon’s needs? Some might be tempted to say that if his wife had been more attentive to his needs, this could have all been avoided. Or she might be tempted to feel guilty. I want to unequivocally say “NO” to this thinking. Leon was given responsibility to take care of himself by God. That is the task of every mature adult. When we are born, we are completely in need of being taken care of by someone else and the journey to being an adult is a journey of taking full responsibility for the person God made us to be. A counsellor I know once spoke of seeing many nine-year-olds in 45-year-old bodies. An adult owns the responsibility to take care of him or herself.
So, how could Leon have handled his perfectly legitimate needs to feel loved and needed when his wife was distracted? One, he could acknowledge the underlying feelings he was experiencing: perhaps disappointment, sadness or feeling left out. Two, he could go to God with those tough feelings, admit them, not deny them or feel ashamed. He could ask God to reveal himself and speak into those disappointments. He could also remind himself that it has not always been this way in his marriage and it is likely not to remain this way forever. He could schedule an uninterrupted time when both he and his wife are relaxed and open to conversation to talk about what he is noticing, asking how he might help with some of what she is carrying, and admit that he longs to feel closer to her as well. They could brainstorm ways to feel more connected again as a couple.
But those what-ifs don’t help after the pain he’s caused. What hope is there for Leon now? There are ways to break the stranglehold of addictions and find a way back to healthy living. Depending on the type or severity of the addiction, treatment might include counselling, residential or day programs, peer support groups such as Celebrate Recovery or Freedom Session, accountability relationships, and even medication and/or biofeedback designed to help with the biochemical impacts. Finally, it’s crucial to never underestimate the power of prayer, recommitting to making God the centre of your life, and working to make amends with those you have harmed. Trust will have been eroded and must be built back. But healing is possible.
“For freedom did Christ set us free; stand fast therefore and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage.” (Galatians 5:1)
If you are struggling in this area, we encourage you to reach out for help. Our team of registered counsellors offers a free one-time phone consultation and can also refer you to a trusted counsellor in your area. Call us at 1.800.661.9800 Mondays to Fridays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or visit FocusOnTheFamily.ca/Counselling to learn more.
Wendy Kittlitz is vice-president of counselling and care ministries at Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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