By: Dr. Gregory Popcak
Gwen’s husband Alex has been acting suspicious and withdrawn lately. He isolates himself from her and the kids and just sits in his office staring at the computer. He won’t come to bed and stays up late on line. When she asked him about it, Alex just said that he’s had to bring a lot more work home lately. Gwen let it go a while, but one day, she finally got up the nerve to check her husband’s history file on his computer. What she found were several subscription online pornography sites. Gwen was devastated. What could she do?
Mark is worried about his wife, Bethany. She hasn’t seemed like herself since the dental surgery she had four or five months ago. She was on pain killers for a few weeks while she healed and during that time, she was drowsy a lot of the time and had difficulty concentrating. Mark didn’t think anything of at first, after all, that’s what pain medication does. Even so, he expected the lethargy and poor concentration to go away once she stopped the prescription. It did get better for a few weeks, but then the symptoms all came back. Beth has been sleeping a lot while the kids are in school and she just isn’t keeping up the way she used to. Sometimes he catches her just staring off into space. She says she’s “just a little tired.” She gets upset when Mark pushes the issue and insists “nothing’s wrong” and that he’s just being “controlling.” Is he?
Bill and Alicia are worried about their 21- year-old son Joe. A couple of months ago, Joe and his friends started visiting the local casino to try their hand at poker, after watching some shows on TV. It seemed harmless enough at the time, but now all Joe talks about is becoming a professional poker player. He spends more and more time at the casino, and is always broke. Joe works at a local car repair shop. Recently, Joe’s boss wrote him up for falling asleep under one of the cars Joe was working on. Joe said he’d been out too late but he didn’t say where. Bill and Alicia think they know.
We are told that doctors have not yet cured the common cold because the virus that causes them mutates so easily and so often. Addiction seems to behave in a similar fashion. It used to be that we only heard about alcoholism and drug addiction. Then we discovered addictions to sex, overeating, gambling, shopping and the internet to name a few. Sometimes, it can seem as though all these addictions are just a marketing gimmick developed to keep treatment centers full and addictions counselors something to do. If only that were true.
In any given year, approximately 8.5% of the general US population display symptoms associated with alcohol addiction. Drug abuse afflicts another 5% of Americans. There are signs that the picture is only going to get worse. A recent study of college students found that binge drinking and other substance abuse has reached record levels–even for that population–with one out of every four college students engaging in regular and serious chemical abuse. As recreational gaming leaves Atlantic City and Las Vegas, the rate of compulsive problem gambling is soaring. For instance, in states where gambling is legal, compulsive gambling ranks with drug abuse with up to 5.4% are lifetime pathological gamblers. This is compared to 1.7% for other states. Similarly, many treatment programs that have sprung up to help people deal with internet addictions–especially addictions to online pornography–have waiting lists. Approximately 10% of computer users admit to engaging in compulsive online behavior that seriously jeopardizes work or important social relationships. Like the virus that causes the common cold, addiction is a mutating problem that is easily spread but not easily cured, and under the right circumstances, it can even be deadly.
What is Addiction?
People have many questions about addiction. One of the more popular questions is “What causes addiction?” This is a controversial question that even the experts sometimes disagree on. The safest explanation is that addiction, in all its many forms, is a monster whose tentacles extend into the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of the human person. Addiction to any substance or activity tends to evolve in stages; from abuse, to dependency, to “full-blown” physical addiction. Perhaps one of the most helpful ways to understand addiction is to consider a functional definition of the disorder. Addiction may be understood as the uncontrolled and compulsive use of a substance or indulgence in an activity (like gambling, sex, shopping, etc.). Addiction is uncontrolled in the sense that persons suffering from an addiction can’t stop themselves from using the addictive substance or participating in the destructive activity even when they sincerely promise they will. Sometimes, a person suffering from addiction is unable to stop even after suffering serious personal consequences.
Likewise, addiction is compulsive in the sense that while the person feels the irresistible need to engage in the addictive behavior, they get less and less pleasure from the addiction as time passes. The person with an addiction problem eventually derives little pleasure from it, may experience negative consequences for it, and usually hates themselves for being unable to stop it.
How Do People Get Hooked?
Addictions, whether chemical or behavioral, do their dirty work by stimulating the pleasure and reward centers of the brain and, in some cases encouraging an overproduction of the body’s natural stimulants or painkillers. The brain’s pleasure and reward centers are tied to learning. The better something feels, the more we learn to think of it as essential for our well-being. The more the brain’s pleasure centers are stimulated by outside chemicals, or the more the body gets used to the particular chemicals–whether synthetic or natural–coursing through its system, the more the body learns to need that stimulation to continue to function at normal levels. Although the addiction might make a person feel good at first, eventually, the body learns to expect to feel that good all the time. The highs begins to feel “normal” and what was formerly normal now feels awful. At that point, the body feels worse and worse when not engaging in the addictive behavior and it takes more and more work for the addict just to feel stable. Soon, one’s entire life is centered around maintaining, not pleasure, but a basic ability to function. Sometimes, the addiction becomes so demanding, the person cannot keep up with it, and it takes their life.
The “Functional” Addict
Most people think that a person who is truly addicted can’t function. While all addiction impairs a person’s social or occupational functioning to one degree or another, not all addicts are unproductive. So called, “functional alcoholics” and “functional addicts” can be top performers at work or in the community (especially if they are abusing stimulants), although very often, their home lives and relationships are a mess. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a person gets up for work everyday or keeps the house neat as a pin that they might not be addicted to a chemical or a behavior. But if a person’s performance isn’t always a reliable predictor of addiction, what is?
Signs of Addiction
A good rule of thumb for evaluating whether a person is or is not struggling with an addiction is to ask, “How much, and whom, is the person I love willing to sacrifice to continue the suspected addiction?” When a person is addicted to either chemicals or an activity like gambling, sex, or shopping, they start making relationship sacrifices to sustain the behavior. The person will miss more and more family activities or social events if they conflict with his or her ability to be involved in the addiction. The budding alcoholic will miss family game night because he’s passed out in the easy chair after a few too many brews. The aspiring addict will be late for the kids’ games because of yet another “doctor’s appointment” or because she was feeling “worn out” and needed a nap. A husband will eschew going to bed with his wife to spend more time on the internet. Relationships are the first things to go for the addict, long before work performance, and loved ones are often made to feel guilty as the addict accuses them of being “selfish” and demanding too much of them. A spouse or children will feel conflicted and confused. On the one hand, they know that their loved one is spending too much time engaged in suspicious activities. On the other hand, they think to themselves, everybody deserve break now and then, right? Its not really that bad, is it? After all, it isn’t as if the loved one can’t get to work or is rocking back and forth in a dark alley? Right?
Degrees of Addiction
Compulsive behaviors often travel through three stages before they become “full blown” addictions; abuse, psychological dependence, physical dependence/addiction.
Abuse: The person is using something in a manner or for purposes it was not intended to be used. For example; a party-goer may become too drunk to drive, or a person intentionally seeks out internet pornography. Abuse is always problematic, but it is infrequent, and it is sensitive to correction by loved ones.
Psychological Dependence: Although their body does not yet crave the chemical or activity, the person believes they need the chemical or activity to do certain things well or function at their best. For example; A person believes he cannot “loosen up” until he’s “had a few drinks.” Or, although the person is not experience physical or emotional discomfort the person thinks he or she should take the painkiller or sedative, “just in case.” Or, the person may consistently choose the activity over the people in his or her life and only seems truly happy when engaging in that activity. Dependence is always resistant to correction by loved ones.
Physical Dependence: At this level, the body craves the substance the person has been abusing regularly or requires the ongoing stimulation of the reward and pleasure centers of the brain that a particular activity affords. This is the level most people understand as “addiction.” The person who has become physically dependent may seem totally obsessed with acquiring the next opportunity to drink, take drugs, or engage in the problem behavior. This person would rather engage in the addictive activity than do almost anything else. People and relationships are unimportant. Social and work behavior is severely impaired. The only thing that matters is the addiction.
Faith and Addiction
Research consistently shows that one of the best ways to avoid addiction is to be active in your faith and in your faith community. Only 66% of religiously committed people drink at all compared to 90% of the unchurched, accounting for a significantly lower overall risk of abuse. Of those who use alcohol, religious people consistently drink both less and less often than their non-religious peers. Several studies indicated that the more active a person is in living their faith and participating in the life of their church community, the lower their risks for all manner of compulsive behaviors will be. There are several reasons for the protective nature of faith regarding addictions. First, as Christians we believe that grace is efficacious, that is, it does something real. When we are active in our faith, we have a better sense of our purpose, our worth in God’s eyes, and we are more convinced that there is a plan for our lives. Grace makes us aware of who we are and where we are going, and makes us loathe to risk fulfilling our destiny as people of God. Beyond this, researchers have identified three concrete reasons faith-involvement decreases the risk of addictions.
Moral Clarity: The moral teachings of a faith community provide clear warnings about what is good and bad for us without us having to discover it for ourselves. The nonbeliever does not have the benefit of other’s experience to draw from in this regard. By contrast, believers’ moral code consists of thousands of years of example to learn from, both good and bad.
Social Support: Studies consistently show that the more capable a person is of reaching out to others both for giving and receiving support, the less likely they are to head down the path of addiction. Religion encourages “pro-social behavior.” That is, it emphasizes the importance of helping others and allowing others to help. This factor combats the senses of isolation and self-centeredness that are risk factors in addiction.
Increased Coping Strategies: When going through difficult times, non-believers tend to focus more on their feelings while believers focus on finding a way out. The more feeling-focused a person is, the more susceptible to hopelessness they become, because feelings can be difficult to change. But if a person focuses on finding answers, then even if they feel awful, and the solution is far in the future (or perhaps even after death) the person can maintain a sense of hope and purpose which strengthen them in times of difficulty. Without such resources, a person will be sorely tempted to lean on things outside of themselves (whether substances or activities) to bridge the gap between their personal resources and the problems they face.
If someone you love is struggling with addiction, the following resources can help you find ways to help.
How to Help
If someone you love is demonstrating behaviors that you have concerns about. Here are things you need to know.
1. Set Limits.
If someone you love is engaging in a behavior to the degree that it is interfering with your relationship, set limits and insist on change. If you aren’t sure whether or not you are being selfish, talk to your pastor or a counselor to help you know whether your expectations are reasonable. The difference between a casual drinker, internet user, gambler, or shopper, or a person using prescription drugs appropriately (note: illegal drug use is always problematic) and someone who is addicted is that the addict doesn’t care that their behavior is affecting you. They will make excuses, blame you, and threaten you rather than consider your concerns and address the problem. A rule of thumb is; the more they resist, the greater the likelihood of addiction.
2. Stopping the Behavior Doesn’t Stop the Addiction
The addict often has problems with intimate relationships, problem-solving, and communication. Whether these problems caused the addiction or are the result of an addiction are beside the point. The bottom line is that that the addictive behavior is just the most visible sign of a deeper problem, no matter how much the addicted person denies it. Stopping the behavior will not stop the addiction. It will only cause the addiction to mutate into some other way to escape. If your loved one’s relationship or occupational functioning is affected by a problem behavior, insist on counseling to deal with both the compulsive activity and the underlying issues.
3. Seek Help Early.
The time to get help is not when you’re convinced there is a problem. The lay person is too prone to doubting him or herself, making excuses for the loved one, and missing cues that would be obvious to a professional. By the time you know your loved one has a problem, you have let too much time go by. If you suspect that your loved one has a problem with chemical abuse or compulsive behaviors, talk to a professional. Better to discover that there is nothing to worry about than to miss signs that would have helped you intervene early and effectively. In the event that there is cause for concern, a counseling professional can help you assess the seriousness of the problem and determine the kind of interventions that may be necessary to get your loved one back on track.
4. Seek Help for Yourself
If your loved one won’t seek help, seek help for yourself. It is easy for loved ones to slip into relationship patterns that actually make addictions worse. Get help to learn how to avoid being an unwitting participant in your loved one’s addiction. Addiction is a powerful enemy, but armed with the knowledge of how to catch it early, you can help the people you love live full, abundant lives.
For the Person Struggling with Addiction:
Alcoholics Anonymous (www.alcoholics-anonymous.org) –Since 1935, this peer-support organization has helped hundreds of thousands of people beat their addictions to alcohol.
Narcotics Anonymous (www.na.org) –Using the same structure of AA. This organization helps individuals who struggle with addictions to both illegal and prescription drugs.
Sexaholics Anonymous (www.sa.org) –Peer Support for recovery from sexual addition.
Gamblers Anonymous (www.gamblersanonymous.org) –Peer Support for recovery from problem gambling.
The Hazelden Foundation (www.Hazeldon.org) — Since 1949, non-profit treatment and research institution that specializes in addiction recovery.
For Family Members of People with Addiction Problems:
Catholic Charities–Every diocese offers information on local referrals and treatment options available in your area. Contact your local diocesan Catholic Charities office for information and support.
Al-Anon/Alateen (www.al-anon.alateen.org) –Peer support for adults and teens who loves someone who struggles with addictions.
CatholicTherapists.com (www.CatholicTherapists.com) –National referral site for Catholic counselors.
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