Addictions and the spiritual life
Reading the signs of the times reveal that addictions are almost ravaging our human freedom, control and power. One of the challenges from the Second Vatican Council was its summons to read the “signs of the times.” It is a call to reflect deeply on the events unfolding before our eyes and to respond to them out of mature faith. Therefore awareness, a change of lifestyle and prayers are important. The term addiction is derived from the Latin word “addicere” meaning to have no voice, or to surrender oneself to a master. Addiction is speedily taking over our sense and gift of self-mastery. As I share with you, we have statistically an overwhelming number of persons inflicted by addictions of various categories and a numerous list of celebrities, adolescents, youth and adults of all walks of life have been knocked down by addictions and addictive behaviours. Therefore, we are preoccupied with the task of understanding addictions, their categories, causes, and their relationships with our spiritual life.
Understanding addictions and how they function
In our world today, we have various forms of unclean spirits or demons that are gradually taking over our freedom. These unclean spirits or demons are either inherited from our families or through the influence of our society’s erroneous ideologies like relativism, minimalism, materialism, consumerism and hedonism. The old and renewed domain of unclean spirits/demons are addictions. Addictions are diseases or “sickness of the soul” which causes a person to disconnect from self, others and God resulting in alienation/separation, guilt, panicking, shame, boredom, disappointment, frustration, and at times death. It is an extremely complex, multi-factorial, progressive, and chronic brain disease which is marked by changes and malfunctions in the brain chemistry. The changes are triggered and affected by biological, psychosocial, environmental and spiritual factors. The disease and scientific model of addiction has assisted enormously in handling addictive matters. However, the spiritual component is usually neglected and a look at addictions through a spiritual lens have resulted in huge outcomes all over the world.
Addictions attack the whole human person: body, mind, soul and spirit. At the level of the body, they affect the brain and gradually they break down the whole immune system and destroy the health of the entire person. At the level of the mind they affect and attack thinking and the entire “mental apparatus.” At the level of the soul they inhibit or distort a sense of meaning, value systems and hopefulness. And at the level of the spirit there is a sharp split or disconnection with the self, others and God. At this level addiction becomes the opposite of spirituality, and darkness as against light. Thus, “Subjectively … the attacks seem focused on two primary areas: the will, which is our capacity to choose and direct our behavior, and self-esteem, which is the respect and value with which we view ourselves. Addiction splits the will in two, one part desiring freedom and the other desiring only to continue the addictive behavior. This internal inconsistency begins to erode self-esteem.”[i] More so, “We all come ‘from freedom’ originally, and we are meant for freedom. But addiction holds us back from our rightful destiny; it makes us prisoners of our own impulses and slaves to our own selfish idols.”[ii]
Addictions exert a long and powerful influence on the brain and they manifest in three distinct ways: craving for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences.[iii] Addiction is a neurological disorder that affects the reward system in the brain. In the brain, pleasure has a distinct signature: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex. Dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens is so consistently tied with pleasure that neuroscientists refer to the region as the brain’s pleasure center. Dopamine are responsible for interpreting the pleasure. It can be destroyed by substance and the person would need more substance to boost the dopamine. It is believed that once the dopamine pleasure circuit is damaged, it never really returns to normal. At this point the grace of God becomes the main solution, hence the need to be prayerful and seek help through psycho-spiritual therapy and counselling (Matt.11:28).
Categories of addiction
Chemical or substance addictions: alcohol, tobacco, opioids (like heroin), prescription drugs (sedatives, hypnotics, or anxiolytics like sleeping pills and tranquilizers), cocaine, cannabis (marijuana), amphetamines (like methamphetamine, known as meth), hallucinogens, inhalants, phencyclidine, and other unspecified substances.
The impulse control disorders such as: intermittent explosive disorder (compulsive aggressive and assaultive acts), kleptomania (compulsive stealing), pyromania (compulsive setting of fires) and gambling.
Behavioral addictions: food (eating), sex, pornography, using computers/the internet (cyber addiction and cyber dependence), playing video games, working, exercising, spiritual obsession (as opposed to religious devotion), pain (seeking), cutting and shopping, money, power and relationships.
Causes of addictions
A parental history of addiction and addictive behaviours: It has been noted for a long time that addictions tend to run in families. Children with alcoholic parents are 4 times likely to become alcoholic. The message is that if parents who supposed to be models are seen abusing addictive substances then the children would conclude that such practices are normal. After all children learn more by observation and imitation! This can be checked through the assessment of the family history of addictions in order to help and avoid the risks of addictions.
Heavy drinking or drug abuse
Biological factors: Biological changes in the brain can also lead to addictions. A distortion in the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for logical, analytical, reasoning and thought can also predispose a person to addictions.
Genetic factors: Epidemiological studies has revealed that 40-60% of the risks of alcoholism is genetic predisposition to alcoholism. This is also applicable to drugs like opiates and cocaine. Those with genetic predisposition for alcohol and other addictive substances metabolize drugs or alcohol differently than individuals without.
Environmental and cultural disposition: Availability of the substance and tolerance rate can cause addictions. It goes beyond availability which is equally about buying and selling of the substance to the growing and advertisement of it. Moreover, the free use of the substances in the homes and the value accorded to the substances go a long way to influence addictions. Some drugs are also used for religious ceremonies and people of such cultural background may not forbid the use of such drugs that can lead to addictions. Weather challenges also may induce the use of addictive substances and cause addictions and addictive behaviours.
Unresolved inner and/or outside conflicts: They are the struggles against sadness in the midst of affluence, anger, habitual sins and addiction of all kinds, anxieties, depression, stress, fears, the false self and its antics. Others are the search for meaning, faith crisis, the meaning of death, frustrations and disappointments. The first way to begin resolving our inner and/or outside conflicts is getting to their roots. There could be many of such roots and a noticeable example would be the assessment of our first growth and developmental foundations that are registered in our childhood. We grew up from the domain of woundedness (what is called original sin and its effects in Catholic doctrines) and we easily forget it and/or we think we are over with it. The fact here is that our early beginnings can never over power us. But there is a condition to back up our submission and affirmation; that is if we are aware of it and work to refine and redeem it or supply the missing needs of that era of our growth. Otherwise, it can take us unawares and pull us down. This is the point of entry for addictions except for the grace of God. For instance, a child who could not receive praises, affections, or affirmations from his father and other male authority figures would find it very difficult to understand and appreciate God as a Father let alone love God wholeheartedly. The same is true about a child who experiences awkward attitude from a mother; it would be difficult for such a child to understand and appreciate the Blessed Virgin Mary as a Mother. No doubt, the grace of God can take care of our psychosocial needs; nevertheless, the popular ancient Greece adage stands clearly here: “God helps those who help themselves.” This is always true and truest in our discourse.
Codependency: This is a relationship addiction in which family members and especially parents are not able to separate themselves from the challenges of addicts (Ps. 1:3; Gal. 6:1-5). They end up becoming sick physically, emotionally and spiritually more than the addicts. They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves from their true self and become attached to the addictions of the addicts. So, they do not talk. They do not touch. They do not confront. They do not trust. The height of the mistake is that they begin to manifest a “Messianic mentality.” Instead of standing as helpers they pose as saviours. Meanwhile, the addicts only need our support through helpful presence, words, prayers and the supply of their basic needs (spiritual and material).
Threats of addictions to our spiritual life
Health: At the physical domain, addictions can lead to malnutrition and chemical imbalances in one’s body and the end is the breakdown of the health of the addict. On a profound level, there is deep hopelessness, helplessness, meaninglessness and longing that the addict is trying to suppress with some substance or process, rather than finding healing through the grace of God. The emptiness and pain of the addict leaves him/her unhealthy and permanently searching for satisfaction and fulfilment.
Human relationships: This is of primal importance to African culture. Hence, feeling unable to live without addictive behaviour or substance truncates human relationship and creates problems for others. Parents, siblings and friends are almost rendered anxious, helpless and sometimes co-dependent.
Psychosocial well-being: Addictions lead to emotional and social isolations, high crime rates and insecurity, stress, anxiety and depression.
Spirituality: Losing a sense of connection is the main threat of addiction at the spiritual level. Ingrained in all humanity is what Rolheiser calls “the holy longing” for God.[iv] Our thirst, yearning, hunger and search for God is the most precious treasure and we daily labour to realise it, consciously and unconsciously. However, people inflicted with addictions also spend hours to satisfy this longing but in a negative direction, that is a longing to satisfy their cravings instead of God. Instead of fulfilling the beatitude that says “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:8) they end up struggling to satisfy cravings. At the end, the cravings are never satisfied and they cut off the capacity to bridge/connect with oneself, with others and with God because there is no room for contemplation. Addiction also distort the sense of meaning, direction and value systems. Addictions present a lot of endless distractions that one is easily distracted from important issues in his/her life (cf. John 15:5)
The way out of addictions – the Bible and addictions (Matt. 11:28)
I wonder how biblical writers would respond if they return to earth and see how many of us are held in the grip of addictions and addictive behaviours. In Gal. 5:23 the Bible states that self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and it advocates for self-discipline as a spiritual principle to cultivate in order to live a healthy life (Prov. 25:28; Titus 2:11-12). Therefore, it condemns drunkenness/alcohol abuse (Prov. 23:32-35, Isa. 28:1-4, Luke 21:34, 1Cor.6:9-10); uncontrolled lust (Matt. 5:27-30), and gluttony (Luke 21:34). The Bible highlights the following about addictions and our spiritual life: Do not be mastered by anything (1Cor. 6:12); obey the laws of the nation (Rom. 13:1-5); do not assume that addictions or drugs resolve problems or reduce them (1Pet. 5:7; Ps. 55:22); resistance to temptation is possible (1Cor. 10:13); keep the body pure because it is the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 6:19-20); do not expect to come to God through drugs (John 14:6); practice temperance, self-discipline, and self-control (Col. 3:3-5); do not engage in behaviours that might mislead others to stumble (Rom. 14:15-20); do not get drunk (Rom. 13:13); refrain from getting high and be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Finally, seek for help through the family, the church, psychotherapy and spiritual direction (Isa.9:6).
Addictions are not new in the strict sense of history, however, this age of ours has recorded an unprecedented statistics of those inflicted by the challenges of addictions and their effects. Therefore, we cannot fold our arms and watch ourselves being ravaged and destroyed by addictions. Thus, the need for this awareness drive that is backed up with fervent prayers and resolutions to promote and sustain the campaign against addictions and their consequences.
May the time you spend in prayer bring refreshment to your soul and strength to face life’s many trials. And may God bless you with His peace!
O God, you are my God— forever will I seek you!
For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts,
[i] Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addiction, 1988, Harper Collins, New York.
[ii] Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addiction
[iii] Helpguide.org. Understanding addiction
[iv] Rolheiser, R. (2014). The holy longing: The search for Christian spirituality. New York: Crown Publishing Group.