My homily this week sounds like one of those “good news, bad news” jokes.
Except it isn’t funny.
The bad news, in one word, is addiction. What does that word bring to your mind? Perhaps a heroine addict injecting himself in an alley off E. Hastings St. Perhaps someone curled up with withdrawal symptoms in a detox center.
Those are certainly faces of addiction. But they are just the most visible. Addiction is a hidden epidemic today. While only a small percentage of addicted people lose their lives, it costs millions the life they are meant to live. For Christians, addiction is an obstacle to the freedom that God wants for us.
We have learned more than we wanted to know about the psychology and physiology of addiction in the last 10 or 15 years. When I entered the seminary, I knew of only two kinds of addictions: alcoholism and drug addiction. Not long before I was ordained, however, I heard about something called sex addiction, and shortly afterwards I heard about gambling addiction.
This was a whole new world for me, but I thought it was just a way of excusing people’s bad behavior – calling a sin an addiction seemed like a way to avoid responsibility for your actions.
I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The reason I refused to accept that uncontrolled gambling and sexual behavior could be addictions was because I thought all addictions had to have a chemical basis. Well, I was right and wrong at the same time. I still believe that all addictions have some chemical basis; but now I believe you can be addicted to some of the chemicals your own body produces—chemicals connected to the way some people respond to gambling and many people respond to pornography.
In short, there’s a whole lot of brain chemistry behind these modern addictions, which is what makes them such a terrible threat, particularly to the young.
In his book Addiction and Grace, the psychiatrist Gerald May defines addiction as any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits human freedom. He points out that the word “behavior” is very important in this definition, because it indicates that action is essential to addiction. Addiction isn’t about attraction to something, it’s about attachment to something.
Dr. May also lists five characteristics of addiction: tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, self-deception, loss of willpower, and distortion of attention. In other words, we always want or need more of the addictive behavior to feel satisfied, we experience stress or backlash when we stop, we let our minds play tricks to rationalize the behavior, we find it very difficult to keep our resolutions to stop it, and the addiction consumes energy that belongs somewhere else.
Add that up and you can easily say: well, I don’t have those problems so my problem behavior is not an addiction. Perhaps—but don’t discount the power of that third characteristic, self-deception.
So let me put the bad news as boldly as I can: many more of us have one or more addictions than we care to admit, even to ourselves. Dr. May even claims that “to be alive is to be addicted.” I don’t agree with that judgment, but I am deeply convinced that the epidemic of addiction, particularly to pornography, is real and dangerous; I also think that there are lots of other behaviors that rob us of the freedom God wants us to have.
There’s the bad news. The good news is that I only quoted half of Gerald May’s statement. The whole sentence reads “To be alive is to be addicted, and to be alive and addicted is to stand in need of grace.”
Grace is the good news. That’s what St. Paul told the Corinthians in today’s second reading. God’s grace is sufficient—for everyone, addicts included. No thorn in the flesh is more powerful than God.
Even more exciting: it appears that God is particularly generous with His grace when we need it most and deserve it least: “power is made perfect in weakness.”
The most successful programs to overcome serious addictions use the Twelve Steps developed by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. Those time-tested principles are based on the belief that recovery begins with admitting we are powerless over our addiction—just what St. Paul suggests.
What’s more, grace is also at the heart of the Twelve Steps. Those seeking recovery not only admit they are powerless, they also acknowledge that God is powerful—more powerful than any addiction.
This is particularly good news for the Christian, because knowing you are powerless and that God is not happens to be good medicine for the soul, not just the body. The man or woman who is powerless over alcohol, or drugs, or pornography, or promiscuity, or gambling, or overeating stands at the door of an effective spiritual life—a spiritual life that is real and practical, and rooted in the truth about who we are and who God is.
As a practical conclusion, I encourage anyone who wants more information on this crucial topic to come and see me or Father Xavier, or to check my blog for some links. There’s a lot to learn about the brain science of addiction, and there are some new and hope-filled resources available in addition to various support groups. Willpower is almost never enough: if you want to be set free, you need advice, support and information.
St. Paul makes the starting point very clear: if you want to be strong, start by admitting you are weak. In God’s own time you will discover His grace is enough for you, and that His power can set you free.
Www.Candeohealthysexuality.com is a science-based website that seems to be quite compatible with Catholic teaching about human sexuality, though I am guessing that the good folks who run it are probably Mormons. It provides education and support through the internet at a cost of about $50 a month.
http://candeobehaviorchange.com/ is the same program broadened to include substance abuse and other problems.
Alcoholics Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous all have groups meeting in the Vancouver area and can be tracked down through Google or the telephone directory. The Twelve Steps are easily found on-line.