Behind the smiles and self-assurance of many faithful churchgoers lurk the pain, fear, and loneliness of addiction and codependence. Not long ago, I heard a recovering rageaholic acknowledge the physical and emotional abuse he had perpetrated against his wife and children for years while playing a key leadership role in his local church. The family kept his ugly secret, while his fellow believers saw him as a godly man. No one outside the family knew he was suffering from a dependency disorder that threatened his spouse’s and children’s safety as well as his own salvation.

Addictions fall into four basic categories.

  • The first and most widely understood is substance dependence (addiction to chemicals like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs).
  • The other three are “clean” addictions. They include activity or process addictions (workaholism, compulsive shopping, gambling, etc.); relationship addictions (excessive emotional reliance on one-person, extramarital affairs, spouse and child abuse, compulsive caretaking, etc.); and thought and feeling addictions (worry, anger, obsessive over-analyzing, chronic self-pity, and some forms of anxiety or depression).

Most people know about chemical dependence but are largely unaware of the existence of these clean addictions.

Our society focuses much more concern on chemical addictions than on clean addictions.

Terry Kellogg, a well-known expert on compulsive behavior, describes activity or process addictions as any action for distraction. This encompasses everything from spectator sports to Internet addiction, gambling to skydiving, caretaking and control to crisis management. Addiction to control and chaos have brought terms like “control freak” and “crisis junkie” into the popular jargon.

With this group of addictions, the focus is not on a chemical that one takes into the body, but on activities or processes—a constellation of behaviors that may not be harmful in and of themselves (e.g., work, food, exercise, sex, religion) but that have addictive potential. Because of their mood-altering capability, it’s easy to become dependent on these activities and processes, especially if the “user” is emotionally wounded, insatiably needy, or biologically vulnerable. The addicts actually become dependent on endogenous “drugs” (chemicals manufactured in their own bodies).

  • People-pleasing and care-taking release serotonin in the brain.
  • Workaholism and power-mongering release norepinephrine.
  • Excitement and sexual acting-out release dopamine.

These are the neurotransmitters associated with feelings of sadness, well-being, pleasure, and elation.

The next category, romance and relationship addictions, involves becoming emotionally entangled with one person— saying in essence, “I need you to fix me, and you need me to fix you.” Either or both partners use the other as a barometer for their self-esteem. This can occur in the context of relationships that are licit or illicit, romantic or non-romantic, sexual or non-sexual.

The final category, thought and feeling addictions, includes an array of mental and emotional behaviors such as worry, anger or rage, self-pity, fear, depression, and anxiety. Both worry and rage stimulate; worry addicts feel more alive and more animated when worrying than at any other time. Rageaholics feel more energized, more powerful, when they are raging. Some rageaholics actually go into “blackouts” much as alcoholics do—they get so angry they don’t know what they’re doing; the body is in gear but the brain is not. In addition to these feelings, people can become addicted to political, religious, and other belief systems as well.

Would you like to know what happened to the rageaholic described in the first paragraph? Before he reached out for professional help, he raged at anyone who thwarted him, thus endangering both himself and them. A dramatic brush with the law and an overnight stay in jail motivated him to go to a spiritually-oriented, educationally based recovery program. After several weeks of intensive work, he returned home and joined a weekly men’s anger-management group and a twelve-step support group.

After he received help, this apparently ideal Christian, this God-fearing man who had been secretly but actively raging at and abusing the people closest to him, was a changed man. His transformation made a far greater impression on his wife and children than all the good works he had done before.

By: Carol Cannon. Originally published in Signs of the Times, May 2000