Substance use disorder claims more than 175,000 lives every year in the United States, making it the third leading cause of death in this country. During the COVID--19 pandemic and since, the crisis has accelerated dramatically.
Addiction isn't just a physical and psychological illness; it's also a spiritual disease that requires a spiritual remedy. The Road to Hope addresses the deep need in our Church to respond to the addiction crisis. Author Keaton Douglas draws on her years of ministry in this field to educate and equip the body of Christ -- clergy and laity alike -- to understand and minister to our suffering brothers and sisters.
We share an excerpt below. The book is available for purchase here.
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By Keaton Douglas with Lindsay Schlegel
Choosing Something Other Than God
Addiction is really a desperate response to our desire to fill a hole in the soul that only God can fill. May suggests that addiction reenacts the Fall of our first parents. He writes that our spiritual ancestors opened the door for us, that the story of Eden is “simply repeating itself endlessly through history” in episodes of temptation, self-centeredness, pride, rebelliousness, curiosity, and desire. The Lord offers us freedom and love, yet we choose something else, something we mistakenly believe will satisfy our desire and will quench the thirst that only God’s love is capable of satiating.
We have chosen something else again and again throughout salvation history. Consider Noah, who got drunk after God made the covenant with him and then “lay uncovered in his tent." Or recall the way drunkenness is described in Proverbs: “[Wine] goes down smoothly. / At the last it bites like a serpent, / and stings like an adder. / Your eyes will see strange things, / and your mind utter perverse things” — yet the desire for drink remains (see Prv 23:31–33, 35).
Whether or not we personally struggle with substance use disorder, we all struggle with disordered attachments to something worldly. Perhaps we respond to our emotions by eating. Maybe we succumb to the thrill of gambling. We might find ourselves unable to refuse lustful inclinations.
Or it could be that our own attachments don’t seem so extreme. We scroll aimlessly through social media, but we’re sure we’re not hurting anyone. We default to turning on the television every evening, even though we’re not interested in what’s on. We dodge the text message from a relationship that asks too much of us. We keep what we might otherwise give.
In each of these situations, from the seemingly extreme to the seemingly mundane, we choose something other than love of God. We don’t give of ourselves in a healthy way to others. These choices — which may not even seem like choices in the moment — come from that brokenness, that thirst, we all share. We look inward instead of outward. We place our hope in something that can’t supply what we seek, if we dare to hope at all.
In his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, Bishop Robert Barron calls on the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas, who suggested that most attachments fall into one of four categories: wealth, pleasure, power, or honor. “Sensing the void within, we attempt to fill it up with some combination of these four things, but only by emptying out the self in love can we make the space for God to fill us,” Bishop Barron explains. He continues:
When we try to satisfy the hunger for God with something less than God, we will naturally be frustrated, and then in our frustration, we will convince ourselves that we need more of that finite good, so we will struggle to achieve it, only to find ourselves again, necessarily, dissatisfied. At this point, a sort of spiritual panic sets in, and we can find ourselves turning obsessively around this creaturely good that can never in principle make us happy.
When I teach about unnatural attachments, I put my hand, which stands in as the object of attachment, right in front of my face. In this stance, the only things I can see are myself and my hand. I see nothing beyond it. Addiction precludes us from seeing, much less choosing, anything other than what we’re attached to.
A Definition of Addiction
In clinical terms, May defines addiction as “a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire. Addiction sidetracks and eclipses the energy of our deepest, truest desire for love and goodness.” Furthermore, he writes that addiction “limits the freedom of human desire … caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects.” May lays out five characteristics of true addiction:
1. tolerance, the phenomenon of needing or wanting ever
more of the addictive substance, behavior, or object;
2. withdrawal, which can manifest as either a stress
reaction (when the body subconsciously sends danger signals, such as irritability or tremors, to show something is wrong) or as a rebound reaction (the opposite of the symptoms of the addictive behavior,
experienced when the body senses it isn’t going to get what it thinks it needs);
3. self-deception, the many mind tricks that the afflicted person uses to rationalize his or her behavior;
4. loss of willpower, the battle between the desire to
stop and the inability to stop, which ultimately leads to a devastating loss of self-esteem; and
5. distortion of attention, the inability to connect with anyone or anything other than that which he or she is attached to.
Those who are addicted may also experience negative effects on physical or emotional health, take dangerous action in pursuit of the behavior, and be incapable of discussing the behavior with others.
To see this in action, let’s take, for example, a gambler who goes to Atlantic City twice a year and each time loses a tremendous amount of money. At a certain point, she stops going to Atlantic City but gambles instead online. She rationalizes that her behavior is less of a problem because she’s not spending money and time to drive to the casino. At the same time, she’s breaking into her 401K or her kid’s college fund to have more money to use. When that doesn’t suffice and she’s still trying to satisfy this desire, she begins making arrangements with loan sharks. Meanwhile, she’s unable to talk with anyone about what’s going on. This compulsion is a case of an attachment that has become so perversely disordered that it prevents her from opening herself to intimacy with God, others, and herself. It’s become an addiction.
It bears repeating that we cannot undertake the journey of walking with addicted persons if we do so with an us-versus-them mentality. Perhaps no situation in your own life has gotten that clearly out of control. But let’s not forget our spiritual ancestors, who wrestled with golden calves. And let’s be honest that many of us wrestle with a desire to be known, to be esteemed, or to possess a degree of prestige or power in our corner of the world.
Addiction as a Spiritual Malady
The hallmarks of addiction as a disease — shame, guilt, abandonment, and desolation — are ultimately part of one’s spiritual condition. But when I say that, I don’t mean that some people have spirits that are somehow inferior (or superior) to others. Suffering is a common experience. This is why I could connect with those women on retreat. This common ground is why I believe that each member of the Body of Christ, each member of the Church, is called to respond to those brothers and sisters of ours who struggle with addiction and to their families.
Addiction is not something new. People have suffered since the beginning of time. But in our time, the rules have changed, especially due to the opioids in our communities and how they got there (more on that in chapter 2). And while today there are resources out there for people who are suffering from addictions and for their families, most are missing the most important element of lasting recovery: the hope not just of sobriety but of abundant life, of connection, of community.