Dealing with Addictions
Recently, Johann Hari wrote a piece entitled The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think (posted at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html). J. Hari rightly states: “loving addicts is really hard and it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice that tells the addict to shape up” or else. Many families face this same dilemma - they are unsure about how to deal with children (teen and young adult), spouses, siblings, parents, or friends who are addicted to things, activities and substances including but not limited to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sexual behaviors, etc.
Hari mistakenly believes that tough love necessitates a shunning of the addict and suggests that this will only deepen the person’s addiction and may cause someone to lose a loved one altogether. He concludes that it is necessary to “tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever -- to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can’t.”
That is easier said than done, for sure. But is love enough for all addicts? What love are we talking about?
Hari describes the Rat Park experiment by Professor Bruce Alexander in some detail and uses the results for his conclusion. Basically the professor argued (based on experiments with rats and heroin) that addictions are an adaptation rather than a chemical hook due to loneliness or disconnections in human relationships. Without close connections (emotional), the addiction becomes the cage from which the human addict cannot escape. Given a new set of social circumstances and human connections, the addict recovers. Hari uses the Vietnam soldier as another example; given a change of venue back to the US changed the drug habits of many soldiers. However, it is fair to point out that many addicts go cold turkey without changing relationships and venues. For example, I remember my father as a chain smoker who tried to quit numerous times - especially when we nagged him about the dangers of smoking. He tried and tired to stop smoking but eventually would always give in to the siren call of the nicotine. Until the day he was diagnosed with a serious medical problem; Dad went cold turkey realizing that he could possibly die thus losing all personal relationships. The decision to stop smoking worked; what was amazing to us was the peace he experienced while quitting for good. My mother kept smoking but that didn’t seem to phase him. He also didn’t display the usual irritability or impatience that accompanied past attempts to stop smoking. Why the difference? Other addicts have similar stories.
Back to the original hypothesis. The results of the animal studies cannot be directly correlated to human behavior due to the obvious differences between human and animal. Consider that the experiment results were very interesting but flawed from the start. Consider that the rats had no choice of being forced into the cage of isolation containing water with and without drugs. Whereas humans choose to use drugs and do so for various reasons - social, emotional, spiritual, physical and mental. Some choose the cage of isolation even if they have been well loved. The author also seems to think that if he just loves the addict more completely, he/she will rehabilitate easily. And even if he continues to abuse, the call to love is still the over-riding thing to do. While an honorable conclusion; it fails to take into account that perhaps the addict himself fails to love as he should. If a loving family can’t understand what makes Johnny want to get high in the first place, it is unlikely that they will be able to circumvent the problem by just loving him enough. I can say for certain, that we loved our father enough. But did he love enough? That may be the real question.
Why do some people love well and others not well enough? The cultural experiences explains it that our woundedness comes from not being loved well enough. As Bill Cosby said years ago: hurt people hurt people. Seems like he knew well the hidden meaning behind that statement. But is there more to it than just being loved enough? Even well loved people make bad choices. Consider this.
In the beginning, the first parents walked closely with God in a very special garden; He loved them completely and they knew it. Suddenly, Satan came along with the resolve to disrupt that loving, personal relationship. Adam and Eve were blinded by the temptation to become like gods in control of their own destiny. If they had not been so blinded by their own concupiscence they would have realized that they were already like God’s image and likeness even though they would always be His creation and He the Creator. Yes, they were unique and well loved within that special garden - much to the angst of the evil one.
The original design was perfectly simple and readily evident from the beginning. God loved them; after all He endowed the humans with minds to think and free wills to choose. He gave them the ability to choose between what they wanted and what God wanted for them. Theirs was a special relationship with God. All the other creatures were duty bound by instinct to love Him - unlike the human who was given the free choice. The humans were given the freedom to blame God when things didn’t go their way; or for not having enough; or for not being god. Yet, He knew all of this ahead of time. And yet He gave us imagination, creative powers, the ability to dream, plan and understand things intellectually. We are given the right to use these powers anyway we choose. God’s love is readily evident everywhere; the real question became how much did we really love God over self?
Sirach 15: 15- 17 captures the dilemma humans face: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments; loyalty is doing the will of God. Set before you are fire and water; to whatever you choose, stretch out your hand. Before everyone are life and death, whichever they choose will be given them.”
We know what Adam and Eve chose to do even though they were well loved enough! Like Adam and Eve, we too often swap our freedoms with addictions that strip away our basic human dignity and freedoms even though we know that we are loved enough. Yes, it’s too easy to blame others, even God, for our addictions. In this age of loneliness, it is all too easy to blame others for our lack of authentic love for self, others and God. Pope Paul VI seems to have got it right: “The more we live for ourselves, the more our own choices will recoil on us and our decisions & desires, both individual & collective, & upon our manner of thinking and acting with respect to things & to people. It will have repercussions on our religious life as well.” And that is where we are at.
All of us want to be happy in life - few of us wake up in the morning wanting to be unhappy today or wanting to make someone else miserable too. On the other hand, too few of us think deeply about what really makes me happy. Aristotle reasoned that there were four different levels of happiness; more recently, Fr. Robert Spitzer has written a lot about this. This ties in with the addictive behaviors.
As we know., the human creature is a medley of body, mind and soul; in other words we are a composite of material and immaterial natures. What makes up our material nature? Our physical nature including our bodily cells, molecules, hormones, organs, and their functions. Physical feelings related to both pleasure & displeasure; for instance, hunger, feeling full; feeling tired or energetic are also part of our material nature. Our immaterial self is made up by our personality, beliefs, emotions, imaginations, psychologic makeup, abilities to estimate; common sense, memory, mind & soul.
All of us derive a certain sense of happiness from doing things that give us physical pleasure: eating, sleeping, expressing our love sexually, etc. God designed us to experience basic happiness when we have plenty to eat, get adequate rest, have leisure time in order that we take the time to eat, sleep and rest. Studies show time and again that all three of these contribute to our health and wellbeing. However, these positive feelings of happiness derived from physical pleasure last only for a very limited time. When any of us focus on physical pleasure at the expense of loving others, self and God we will experience negative consequences. And this is where the addiction begins - wanting to feel physical pleasure or stimulation - over and over again even while forsaking relationships and our other dimensions - spiritual, social, mental, emotional, cognitive, etc. After a time, the very thing that used to bring us pleasure, begins to cause pain and unhappiness. Pinocchio, while a fairy tale, explains the addictive process excellently. Again, Pinocchio was well loved but that didn’t stop him from exercising his free will when tempted by the bad boys to join their cause to seek physical pleasure every day, every minute of the day. The three other levels of happiness allow us to experience higher and longer lasting degrees of personal happiness. The second level of happiness is also mostly self centered like the first level. It results from accomplishing personal goals, receiving recognition for personal achievements, etc. This happiness is also fairly short-lived and so we keep accomplishing and setting higher and loftier personal goals. When we devote too much of our time to personal accomplishments, we can begin to feel over-worked, under paid and under-rewarded or regarded. When its all about doing to win, none of us can ever win often enough! I can relate to this as we turn our home inside out to improve it. Will it ever be good enough? Will it ever pay off in the long run to spend this much time on painting, cleaning, and renewing? Devoting ourselves to our own accomplishments tend to pit us against other people who may get in our way to the next promotion.
We will achieve higher satisfaction/ happiness when we do things altruistically for other people. We feel good as we help out someone, act with fairness and charitable justice in difficult situations, and when we strive to love others authentically. Once again, this can never make me sufficiently happy. Consider what happens when someone goes out of their way to help someone. With time, they may begin to feel un-appreciated, unloved, and used. Other persons can never fulfill all of my personal needs or wants - even in the best of marital/familial relationships. People will fail us in various ways. Some will die unexpectedly, leaving us feeling empty or alone. But we can turn that unhappiness around by loving rightly. Recently a young husband/ father rote the following after losing his wife: “I can now offer up my suffering for my children and special intentions knowing there is apprise to suffering beings me consolation that good can come of it. I can now, in a minimal way, tie my suffering to the cross… “ Sometimes people leave us feeling all alone even though they live in the same house as us. Others hurt their spouses and children if they choose to love someone else - more or better. At these times, humans are known to take it out on God.
St Thomas wrote that our hearts will always be a bit restless until united to someone who will never die, will never leave us, will never change, will always love us, and will always be there for us. This person is God and the state where we will be completely happy is heaven.“In truth, if you find yourself trying to rely on anything else besides faith to maintain the practice of the presence of God, you will certainly fail, whether this is a dependency on your feelings, experiences, sincerely or good intentions or reasoning or plans .Faith depends on God, the other things depend on us and therefore they will fail.” This is the highest degree of happiness.
Striving to order our lives around God’s Grand Plan will keep us happiest, least anxious, and more satisfied in this life. I daresay, it will also keep us free of addictions. It will bring us to a deeper appreciation and understanding of our human dignity.
If we can bring everyone to know, love and serve God, then I think all of these arguments about legalizing drugs, the drug wars, and rehabilitating the recovering addicts will disappear. But if we continue to leave God out of the question and presume that answers all lie within social and psychological realms, the problems will remain. Yes, prudential human measures certainly help as well. But in the long run, we need to get back to loving God first and foremost, and then we will begin to love others as we should - even ourselves.