Addiction (Part 1)

“These things are addictive,” he said, as he finished the bag of honey roasted peanuts. We all know what that means in an everyday sort of way. There’s something that tastes so good, is so easily available to eat and repeats itself with each mouthful that it’s hard to resist eating too much of it.

But, in the common mind, it doesn’t qualify as a real addiction. Real addiction happens “when I just can’t stop.” It becomes a way of acting to which we are driven even in spite of our better judgment. Where does this strange power over us begin?

St. Thomas Aquinas would tell us, it begins with some-thing quite good: stimulation, comfort, ecstasy, release, approval. Many earthly activities bring about these enjoyable psychological states. Food, drink, sex, winning, etc. The “pleasure” attached to these activities is there to insure their repetition. Food is delightful to the taste be-cause nature wants to insure we eat every day. Sex brings intense pleasure because nature must find a sure way to foster new generations. Thanks or applause signals that we should do that again. They are strong inducements to these particular actions, but, by themselves they are not necessarily addictive.

What makes a particular thing addictive is its power to ever increase the desire for such a state over other human experiences. There comes a point where, to NOT be in that state is experienced as a deprivation, a sort of poverty. I begin now to prefer my addiction to all the other states of being. I seek to always increase the time I might spend with it.

At this point, the addictive power begins to limit human freedom. (Master and slave is not too strong in comparing the addict to his addiction.) There is no end to my desiring this activity. It will not quietly take its place amongst other human activities. Like the moon which disappears at full sun, the other good things of life can’t compete with the blinding desire of addiction.

Moments like kindness, friendship, generosity, humor, communication, as good and pleasurable as they are, are not addictive because they lack the power to overwhelm. Their appeal does not remove other choices, even some less pleasurable.

So, where does the addiction get its power? Science has been hard at work to unwrap the phenomena of addiction. They tell us over time the repeated brain waves of intense pleasurable action wears a pathway in our brain. Along this frequently used brain path travels powerful pleasure inducing hormones (pheromones) producing the increasingly desired effect. In effect, the brain has found a shortcut to the feeling of “well-being”. This easy “wellness” becomes the preferred state from which to engage the world. All addiction is, in a sense, a drug addiction (the pheromone release in my brain.)

Other addictive theories are more behavior based. But they too have a “pain relief” purpose. Psychologists tell us we all have elements of emotional pain in our lives. Some pain is life long and comes from traumatic instances in our youth. Others, less dramatic, but chronic, (loneliness, depression, fears, boredom etc.), can turn to certain behaviors that self-medicate painful emotional states.

For example, a person tied to a job she hates, without family or friends to enjoy life with, with little or no hope for anything changing for the better, can self medicate at the casino, the bottle, the internet, the kitchen, etc. . . anything to change the low emotional wellness level.

Let’s be honest. We all run the risk of finding something to which we are inclined in an unhealthy, addictive way. Feeling his weak human nature St. Paul writes to the Romans, “My inner being delights in the law of God. But in my body, I see a different law. A law that fights against the law of God . . . I don’t understand what I do; for I don’t do what I want to do, but instead I do what I hate. What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death?” Romans 7:14-25.

The answer, of course, is God. But, we need to understand what we must do so God can do His part. We’ll look at that next week.

In the meantime, I beg you . . . please know that God has got this all figured out and how He’s going to save us from whatever is addicting us. That’s a promise. So, let’s begin to turn this problem over to God.

Hope you had a great Christmas!

Fr. Tim