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Addiction & Idolatry
And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Psychology keeps trying to vindicate human nature. History keeps undermining the effort. I go to 12-Step recovery group meetings in the basement of an old church near my home. Hanging on the wall is a sign that reads: “God save me from myself.”
This message speaks to humankinds’ inherent self-centeredness—the unique and paradoxical dynamic of exaggerated ego and self-loathing that, without God’s intervention, leads inevitably to our self-destruction. In this sense, a hungering heart beats within us all. And for the purposes of this book, I want to broaden our preconceived notions about the word “addiction,” and begin to integrate the more comprehensive word, The topic of brain chemistry and its relation to chemical dependency alone could fill dozens of books, and has in fact done just that; research is breaking new ground daily, bringing to light more and more irrefutable data confirming addiction as, at least in part, a neurochemical disease. A few mouse-clicks on any search engine will reveal a ton of information on the subject, and I recommend every reader who thinks they might be interested in learning more to click away; the more we educate ourselves about the scientific, as well as spiritual realities of this subject, the more equipped we can all be to serve those who suffer (and those who love them). For the purposes of these articles, though, we’ll only go over these aspects in a very brief and basic manner. It is of vital importance that we differentiate between many of our idolatrous behaviors and the full-blown disease of drug addiction. The unfortunate truth is that in today’s “modern” society there still exists an astonishing level of ignorance among many regarding addiction (and, for that matter, mental illness). In a culture blessed with unprecedented access to information, many still gather their “facts” concerning these issues from the pages of anecdotal or even sensational sources rather than from scientific data. While we may find it convenient to draw conclusions about these complicated conditions from newspaper articles or magazine stories describing move stars in rehab, this information is rarely comprehensive in nature. These culture-destroying disorders deserve closer examination than is often represented by those who manufacture simplistic Even today, those struggling with chemical dependency still face social stigma, despite the fact that recent research has clearly revealed addiction as a brain disease involving specific regions of the brain and neurotransmitter systems. Alcoholism fits the criteria for disease established and supported by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Using alcoholism as a template, the destructive potential becomes obvious: Current estimates hold that some 70 percent of adults in our country drink, and about 12 percent become “problem drinkers.” From this group emerges a subgroup of alcoholics, making up around six percent of the general population. Latest research shows that 22.5 million Americans were classified with substance dependence or abuse in the past year, and as many as 74 percent say addiction to alcohol has had some impact on their lives, whether personally of via friend or family member. Recent studies from the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies say 7 to 15 percent of Americans will be addicted at some point in their lives. If we do the rough math, we see that there are at least ten million Americans suffering in some stage of alcoholism. The overall social impact cannot be fully measured, of course, but still there are statistics relating to this disease—to crime, for instance—which are astounding. Alcoholism and drug addiction are our nation’s undisputed number one health problem. Forty-two million sleeping pill prescriptions were filled in the U.S. in 2005, up sixty percent since 2000—a symptomatic wake-up call to a society in search of synthetic peace. The destruction to individuals, families, and our culture as a whole cannot be over-stated; today, untreated addiction costs our national economy more than $275 billion a year, more than heart disease and There has of course for years been considerable debate about the whole “disease” thing. How can our condition of alcoholism be considered a disease, some ask, when we directly contribute to the condition via choice? The medical definition of ‘disease’ states that the condition cannot be caused by volitional acts (the act of exercising our will). Obviously, an alcoholic must choose to repeatedly drink alcohol in order for the disease to progress through its defined early, middle and late stages of severity. But what happens to “choice,” as most people understand the word, once the disease has invaded and established itself in the human condition? I find it fascinating the number of books that choose a “side” regarding the subject. On one side of the argument we have many within certain scientific, medical, and psychiatric communities, and on the other side a number of others—frequently Christians and other religious groups—who hold a very different opinion of things. The science-inclined speak of such things as brain chemistry and psychological/social factors while scoffing at the “superstition” of the religious, while some Christians denounce this approach as essentially sacrilegious, claiming that the whole matter could be corrected if the addicts would simply pray harder and thus strengthen their faith. I find this a most curious debate; it’s as if both groups hurling their rocks at each other are oblivious to the fact that we humans are creatures of both flesh and spirit. The human condition cannot be approached with regard to healing unless all aspects of our being are addressed. Part of addiction’s insidious and deadly nature lies in the fact that its core issues are multi- faceted, and treatment must include a comprehensive approach. There are plenty of people out there that understand this, including both scientific and religious types as well; the American Association of Christian Counselors (, for instance, is an organization which fully comprehends this essential therapeutic marriage of science and spirituality. Still, in today’s so-called “enlightened” society, Christian therapists practicing within a secular environment must often battle considerable intellectual bias; it’s not unusual for our faith-based belief systems to be challenged as subjective, even irrational, and those who integrate spiritual components into the counseling process are viewed by some as less than fully professional (if not unethical). In the difficult realm of addiction treatment, the marriage of Christian faith and secular science is at best a rocky The problem is admittedly complex. Still, the constant lobbing of stones can become tiring. Both sides end up offering simplistic arguments, and ultimately compromised effectiveness in treating the disease. And although as a Christian I fully believe that Christ alone is our ultimate Healer, many of the religious who insist on their faith-alone approach are essentially disregarding the beneficial elements of the psychological sciences to recovery, and at the very least do not understand the shame- based dynamics involved in addiction. If they did, they might realize that most addicts who come upon a book offering up this one-dimensional approach would run screaming in terror the moment they read the back cover. This would, of course, make healing a bit problematic; we can’t help someone if they run away. Using sophisticated brain-imaging technology, scientists are in the process of uncovering the unique brain chemistry that underlies craving in addicts. Although we know addiction to be far more complicated than any single perspective of healing might address, we now know that true addiction is at least in part a brain disorder, with measurable neurochemical imbalances. (In this regard, addiction professionals are being increasingly exposed to hard research data indicating considerable promise in the realm of FDA- approved pharmacotherapies for alcohol dependence. Older drugs such as disulfiram,
and newer ones like ReVia and Vivitrol that block opioid receptors in the brain and thus reduce cravings, are all proving effective in treatment and management of alcoholism, particularly in early stages of treatment and in relapse prevention, when integrated into comprehensive treatment protocols. To learn more about this area of study, the book Addiction and Change, by Carlo DiClemente, PhD, provides excellent insight.) Although it may be convenient to simply say “All of us are addicts,” or “There’s no such thing as normal,” it is neither logical nor particularly helpful for those who suffer from true biophysical and neurochemical addictions when we generalize or minimize the actual disease mechanisms with which some people have been born. For instance, while a great many people at one time or another in their lives enter into drug abuse (a condition
which in its own right creates chaos, dysfunction, and death for countless victims), only a small percentage of them will cross the threshold into drug addiction; professionals in
the field have specific diagnostic criteria for establishing the difference, and there is a difference. Because of complicated psychological, biophysical, and neurochemical aspects involved in alcoholism, for instance, the mere fact that someone drinks or drugs a lot, even to the point of obvious excess, does not necessarily indicate the presence of true addiction; addiction is not determined solely by either amount or frequency of substance used. So let’s have a quick and admittedly condensed primer before we move on. Addiction is a biologically determined disease, just like heart disease and
diabetes. Chemical dependency is primary—it is not a symptom of any other condition.
The disease is progressive—a somewhat baffling phenomenon in which the disease
process continues to advance even during periods of abstinence. What this means for the alcoholic and drug addict is that it will never be safe to use mind-altering substances again; the result would be a fast decline into the very level of disease experienced prior to sobriety. Addiction, though treatable, is incurable—left untreated, the manifestations of
both substance and behavioral addiction will kill us…or kill our souls. This one throws some people; everyone understands how cocaine can kill, but behavioral addictions create enormously dangerous life consequences. Sex addiction, for instance, is a full-blown epidemic in the world of addictions. The internet has made access to an almost infinite array of pornographic materials as simple as the click of a mouse. Countless thousands are afflicted everywhere, lives ruined, families destroyed, souls decimated. Whole new generations are being brought up within this cultural setting where sexual gratification of all kinds is sold as casually as peanuts at a carnival. The insidious nature of this dilemma is so widespread and profound, there’s simply no way to thoroughly look inside its dynamics here. (Please understand that though for the purposes of this book we will include sex addiction and other behavioral compulsivity issues as comprehensive components of our teachings on addiction as idolatry, much scientific research is still needed before easy generalizations about something as complex as addiction, neurochemistry, and associated treatments should be made. I will be focusing an entire separate book on the topic in the near future.) Now, keeping in mind this more broad definition of chemical dependency, we can attempt to see it as a disease of body, mind, and soul, with spiritual self-deception as a
primary symptom. The fancy term for all this in the recovery world is the biopsychosocial disease model, and includes biophysical, psychological, environmental,
and spiritual dynamics. Attempts to treat the disease by addressing any combination other than all four of these factors will, in my opinion, fail to completely free the individual who suffers. The biological aspect involves heredity and genetics—heightened
propensity for addiction passed along to us, generational factors inherent in our DNA. The psychological elements were once referred to as ‘addictive personality,’ but more
recent research has in a purely scientific way mostly dismissed this concept. I believe, however, that this has more to do with the way certain of us are “wired”—inborn characteristics woven into the uniqueness of who we are, of how we are made by God. Often, I observe certain giftedness present in clients who suffer from addiction: high IQ, creative thinking, emotional sensitivity and a heightened sense of empathy and compassion paradoxically accompanied by a feeling of being on the outside looking in. The social or environmental influences that help shape the addict can be as obvious as a
child growing up fatherless in a poor, inner-city drug culture, but often this element takes on a more covert form. Broken homes without a Christian foundation, one or more physically or emotionally unavailable parents, divorce, and all types of abuse and Lastly and, arguably, most importantly is the spiritual component. The more I
work with them, the more convinced I become that addicts frequently share not only many of the psychological characteristics mentioned above, but also an accompanying intense inner longing for God. Often, of course, they are completely unaware of this in a literal sense. But most addicts often feel as though they are traveling through life somewhat as strangers, caught between this world and one that cannot be seen or touched. My own belief is that many of these gifts God has given the addict provide them with great potential to become warriors for the Kingdom. But, conversely, these same gifts can create an emotional vulnerability to living in the “real world,” a hyper- sensitivity to the proverbial slings and arrows of life on planet Earth. Addicts feel like strangers in a strange land, and these feelings usually exist from early childhood. We see ourselves as different from other people. Isolated. Separated. And our addictions provide a false, yet temporarily effective, emotional shielding. These four components —biophysical, psychological, environmental, and spiritual—make up what I call the “Four-legged Chair.” Attempts to treat any combination of these “legs” other than all four comprehensively will often have compromised effectiveness; lose even one “leg,” and the chair falls over. Viewing things from the purely physical side of the equation, we know that chemically dependent people suffer from disordered neurochemistry—our perceptions are altered, and we can feel lonely in a room full of people. We can be popular in school, award winning athletes, successful business people…all the while fighting an internal sense of our worthlessness, inferiority, and unrelenting loneliness. Ultimately, we bring these self-imposed destinies into being, and become isolated and at ease only when using Addicts/idolaters (and, with a somewhat variant pathology, those with certain mental disorders) all share a unique perspective on what they see as reality. In the intro Professionals who work on the battlefield of chemical dependency would quickly identify me a classic example of the “egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” And so, here I am now with some time in recovery, refereeing a daily battle between the still-struggling part of me that constantly craves attention, and another part that desperately dreads drawing any more notice to myself. I want to run the world, and I expect everyone to see the inescapable logic in that. A certain part of me has always fully expected to be famous. And yet, I’m often terribly lonely and afraid, always seeking approval, hopelessly hoping that someone might find something within me worth loving. It’s a vicious cycle, this all-or-nothing, warp-speed or dead-stop, top-of-the-heap or bottom-of-the-barrel kind of living. And so, these days, I’ve had to learn to reach out for help, and tell a few trusted people the truth about myself, at least as much truth as I’m able to discern. When I do, I find that I’m able to stay at least slightly sane. For as long as I can remember, I have experienced what I call polarized thinking. My highs were wonderfully high, my lows devastatingly dangerous, a world of too-loud- laughter and sudden weeping. The spiritual gifts that allow me to experience life with a kind of rich fullness seemed to have come with a price. My nearness to Christ created a certain vulnerability to the ways of this world. Whenever the term “chemical dependency” is used, immediate images of alcoholism and drug addiction come into most people’s heads. I ask, though, that we might consider a more comprehensive definition of chemical dependency, one that includes far more than just substance abuse. Brain chemistry imbalance issues involve, among other things, low levels of certain neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that transmit information affecting mood, impulses, pain perception, sexuality, and so on. (A special note here: In my series of articles collectively entitled The Bipolar Express, I write about the increased percentage rates of bipolar disorder and other mental disorders among alcoholics and drug addicts, another indicator of the neurochemical imbalance connection. Certainly addiction professionals in the field today are aware of the vital need for assessing patients with COD—co-occurring addiction and psychiatric disorders—and the growing importance for embracing integrated treatment models and cultivating good working relationships with appropriate professionals in the psychiatric, medical, and mental health fields. Although we cannot adequately cover this essential, emerging topic in this book, the importance of the slow-but-sure acceptance of the need for integrated treatment now taking place between mental health and addiction pros must not be underestimated. Hard scientific research is validating what many in both fields have long suspected: mental disorders and addiction are far more similar than different. Addiction, like mental illness, is (in part at least) a disease of the brain. For far too many years, the insistence in treating these disorders as separate entities often manifested in only one of the disorders being treated, with the untreated “side” sabotaging the recovery of the other “side.” As we learn more from research advances utilizing such technologies as magnetic brain imaging, the clear evidence of related neurobiology in both addiction and psychiatric disorders can no longer be ignored; the co-occurrence of substance use disorders and psychiatric disorders is pervasive. In coming years, the space separating the alcohol and drug addiction and mental disorder treatment professions will continue to shrink, with integrated treatment protocols becoming the rule rather than the As addicts, we soon learn that certain chemicals and behaviors alter our neurochemistry, making us feel less afraid, less disconnected, and more “normal.” All addictive activity—both substance and behavioral—stimulate a neurotransmitter called serotonin, and all addicts experience the depression, lethargy, and overpowering sense of hopelessness that comes from low levels of this transmitter. Most of us are very familiar with substance addiction to things like alcohol, street drugs, and prescription medications. Less recognized by many are other drugs of abuse for the chemically dependent person, including but not limited to nicotine, sugar, fat, and caffeine. But even less understood is this: Behavioral addiction is just as destructive, and this too comes under the term
chemically dependent. For the addict, the endogenous chemical adrenaline is, for
instance, a powerful drug of intoxication. Adrenaline highs are generated by activities like gambling, driving fast, stealing, lying, risky sexual activity, exercise, and so on. We now know that the human brain is affected in a number of ways by these various forms of chemical dependency; there are definite indicators of compromised development regarding limbic, prefrontal cortex (where rational thought is supposed to override impulsive behavior), and prefunctal lobe areas when we medicate pain and feelings early on. Some of the newest research using MRI technology proves that not only is the brain function of an addict radically altered while using and immediately after using their drug of choice, but that certain functioning actually remains compromised for months and perhaps longer even after initiating sobriety. This may mean that recovering addicts suffer from, among other things, considerable cognitive impairment long after use This would give considerable insight into why even so-called “long-term treatment” options such as those offered by 28-day inpatient facilities may sometimes have disappointing continuing sobriety statistics—the addicted individual simply can’t mentally process all the cognitive-behavioral and spiritual information from the program that might enable him to re-enter society and function as a recovering person. Consequently, our immature emotional state causes us to never quite connect with our ‘true selves,’ and the Great Performance begins. As addicts, we cannot see the truth, nor can we tell the truth. Living in our own lost world, we produce a distorted reality, and embrace deception as our only friend. Like the person addicted to heroin, every chemically dependent person lives in a netherworld of illusion and delusion, and believes with all his heart that he must use his drug/behavior to exist. Although we will in our flesh wander into the realms of both shame and grandiosity, our recovery allows a level of self-realization that draws us back to the center, to the true and worthy center of our hearts, minds, and souls. All of this is to underline the serious nature of true chemical dependency. From a Christian perspective, however, and for the purposes of these articles, I wish to expand the parameters of our thinking. Because so many in our culture automatically align the word ‘addiction’ with ‘substance abuse,’ I want to paint a broader stroke: Let’s define addiction/idolatry as anything—substances, behaviors, or thoughts—that separates us from the love of Christ. The enormous challenge in treating addiction/idolatry lies in the fact that it is more than simply organic in nature. It is also much more than the symptomatic manifestations such as drugs or dangerous behavior. Addiction/idolatry manifests as both pathological and spiritual vulnerability. Brain disorder. “Heart” disease. Soul sickness. This primary tool of the enemy is a weapon of complex and cunning design. And if any true healing is to occur, we must get at the core of the wounds. Like Saundra and her addiction to exercise and outward appearance, many in today’s culture suffer from “clean addictions”—pursuits and behaviors that are not only tolerated by society, but often strongly encouraged. More subtle in their spiritual destruction, these behaviors are not only seen as permissible but are often aligned with personal and societal “self-improvement” or “ambition.” But what is considered legal and culturally acceptable is not necessarily moral. We live not so much in a world of good and evil, but one of truth and deception. It is often easy to recognize evil and temptation…but not In our next article, we will consider the numerous ways in which addiction as idolatry infiltrates our hearts, families, and culture. 2009 James E. Robinson, All Rights Reserved


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