Addiction is a kind of faith gone wrong.
Across the country and the world, we see its effects at work. Drug overdoses in the United States have doubled every nine years since 1979. When I was born 35 years ago, they were relatively rare across the population. Today, they are the leading cause of death in people under the age of 50.
Where is this coming from? It would be easy to assume that addiction is rooted in a kind of gluttony. That all an addiction represents is a relentless and destructive pursuit of physical pleasures.
This is wrong on both scientific and theological levels.
On the scientific level, addiction changes how our brain functions. It is not, as many have assumed, simply a manifestation of a moral failing. Instead it is a phenomenon that each of us is vulnerable to in our own ways given the wrong situation.
Addiction is at its worse not when a person gets enjoyment from their addiction but when they stop deriving any pleasure from it all and still feel compelled to continue. Addiction is not so much about liking something too much, as it is feeling entirely out control what it is that you want and feel compelled to do.
Various models of addiction demonstrate the ways addiction arises out of trauma, pain, dislocation, and disconnection. Economics, culture, materialism, unchecked corporations, public policy, and failures of the criminal justice system all contribute.
At a theological level, addiction should not be understood as the pursuit of something bad or evil but as the pursuit of something good. That good might be a sense of connection, transcendence, or a desire to ease pain and suffering. In the end, the initial good that was sought after fails, and the question we thought it answered proves hollow.
An Augustinian understanding of evil is that it is always a disordered good or desire. It affirms that all things are created good and what we call “sin” is the disordering of those good things and good desires.
In my story of addiction, this is what happened. I had been in the hospital for months on heavy doses of narcotics. I began to associate those drugs not just with the relief of pain but also a sense of safety in an uncertain time and a sense of connection when I was growing increasingly isolated. The process started in the pursuit of a good, but it was not long before I felt compelled to this pursuit in spite of the damage and harm it began to cause.
This is why addiction can be understood as a kind of faith gone wrong.
Faith and addiction are both steps into things not yet fully known, and both are imbued with hope for a journey that will make things better. Both faith and addiction are defined by persistence in the face of negative consequences.
The opposite of those who are addicted is not the saint but the “lukewarm,” philosopher Francis Seeburger writes. “The alcoholic or other addict stands in the shadow of the saint. In contrast, those who have never been addicted only because they lack enough passion for it are not even in sainthood’s vicinity.”
In fact, the early usage of the word “addicted” in English didn’t have anything to do with substances. Instead it was a verb that meant, “to devote or give up (oneself) to a habit or occupation.”
The word appears in 1 Corinthians as the author describes a family that has “addicted themselves to the work of the saints.”
Addiction offers a kind of organizing principle for life. It relieves a burden of searching for a deeper meaning and provides an immediate — albeit shallow and unsustainable — answer.
Addictions represent finite answers to infinite longings.
In this sense, an addiction to a substance can be harmful but also an addiction to our own imperfect theologies or views of the Divine.
Richard Rohr notes in Breathing Under Water that the most universal addiction is “our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially, our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality.”
Addiction is dangerous not because it always lies, but because it only tells a part of the truth. Our addiction might be to a substance, a theology, or an idol we have fashioned in our own image which likely began as some sort of tool or served a specific purpose. At some point, it highlights a part of the truth or provides a good, and we latch onto that even as the deficiencies, limitations, and harm become increasingly clear.
When it comes to an addiction of ideas, more is required than a change of conscious thought. We need to habituate the new ways of being that our changing thoughts require of us or else we relapse into the old deeply ingrained ways of being in the world. In fact, we sometimes need to form the habits before our ways of thinking actually begin to change.
So what is it that makes the difference between an addiction and faith?
One study took an in-depth look at the brain scans of those in the midst of a severe cocaine addiction and those in the early stages of romantic love.
The scans for both were shockingly similar.
Both addiction and love are able to orient a person with a laser focus on achieving a goal. One sign of addiction is when the person uses the drug for much longer periods than intended. They “lose time” in the same way people do when they are with someone they love.
“Although romantic love and drug addiction are similar in the early stages, they are different in subsequent stages, as the addictive characteristics of love gradually disappear as the romantic relationships progresses. However, the addictive characteristics are gradually magnified with repeated use of drugs of abuse.”
Over time, love strengthens other social behaviors. We create the habits and practices that allow us to be more caring and compassionate toward others.
Addiction falls in on itself, and the world and people around you slowly become means to an addictive end. More and more, the only things that matter are the ways in which the object of the addiction can be sought after and achieved.
“I am not being flippant when I say that all of us suffer from addiction,” writes Gerald May in his book Addiction and Grace. “Nor am I reducing the meaning of addiction. I mean in all truth that the psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of full-fledged addiction are actively at work within every human being.”
Whether our addiction is to a substance, behavior, or way of viewing God, there is always hope for recovery. The journey of overcoming an addiction is not a path that only an unlucky few tread but is at the heart of all growth and what we all must do in becoming more fully human.
Excerpted from Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals About Us by Timothy McMahan King. Copyright © 2019 by Herald Press. Used by permission of Herald Press. www.heraldpress.com