As a society, we are exposed to an abundance of information about addiction and compulsion, and yet we really know so little. There is a wide gap between knowledge and true understanding. Many teenagers think they know everything there is to know about sex, when, in fact, their “knowledge” is composed of inaccurate data obtained from dubious sources. The same is true of addiction. Much of what we think we know about addiction and compulsion is based on misinformation and misapprehension.
I was inspired recently by a statement in a newsletter from the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. It suggested that counselors need to develop a “scientific and grace-based understanding” of sexual addiction. I believe all people need to develop a scientific and grace-based understanding of all addictions! Why? Because (1) many of us have felt the power of a destructive habit, (2) we are affected by the pain and problems of loved ones suffering from addictive disorders, and (3) we belong to an addictive society. Ninety percent of the people we want to relate to are influenced by mind-altering substances, activities, and processes.
Let’s begin to educate ourselves by examining some of the common erroneous ideas regarding addiction. Not long ago I had a frustrating conversation with a relative who subscribed to a common misconception. She was convinced that her son-in-law was not an alcoholic because his drinking didn’t interfere with his work. She thought that if he made it to work on time every day, he couldn’t possibly be an alcoholic. Wrong! Although addicts and alcoholics lose control over various aspects of their lives, the vocational aspect is often the last to suffer because they need money to support their habits.
Another common misconception is that people who can go several days or weeks without drinking or drugging are not alcoholics/addicts. Variations on this theme are people who don’t drink/drug before dinner, people who don’t drink/drug alone, people who don’t drink to the point of obvious drunkenness, people who don’t pass out or black out, people who don’t accrue traffic tickets for driving while under the influence, people who live in penthouses rather than in the poorhouse, and people whose lives are intact must not be chemically dependent.
On the other hand, some people believe that anyone who develops an addictive disorder is necessarily weak, stupid, sinful, or immoral. Others are convinced that addiction is caused by lack of commitment to God, family, and church; lack of self-esteem; or lack of will power. None of these assumptions are true, but they are widely held.
So if addiction is “none of the above,” then what is it and what causes it? Researchers have been studying this question for a long time, and no one has come up with a definitive answer yet. But we know more about the causes and characteristics of addiction than ever before. One expert, Dr. Norman Miller, states that addictive behavior is characterized by preoccupation, compulsive use, and relapse. Dr. Jennifer Schneider describes addiction as obsession with a given activity along with loss of the ability to choose freely whether to stop or to continue the behavior and continuation of the behavior despite adverse consequences, such as loss of health, job, marriage, or freedom. Briefly stated, addiction is a distortion of normal human instincts that has multiple causes and complex contributing factors.
Statistically a 90 day residential program that addresses the multifaceted nature of addiction has the best long term results. Understanding that addiction is a family disease is critical. We believe that more people in the family system who get professional help the better the quality of life and the relationships for everyone.