This post is for those who are struggling – personally or through friends or family – with the monster of addiction. This post is written from the perspective of a mental health professional (which I have training as) but does not constitute professional advice. I am not a therapist (I’ve chosen a career in research and teaching) but I have training as a therapist.
Individuals seeking help in overcoming substance abuse, pornography addiction, eating disorders, or any other addictive behavior often fall into three categories: the home run hitter, the negative and bitter, and the perpetual quitter. The home run hitters do just that – they quit without much struggle, hitting a home run, changing their behaviors right away. The negative and bitter don’t believe that they will overcome their addictions and they try to blame other people or external factors for their problems; they play the victim card, often without any hint of accepting personal responsibility. Those individuals are the hardest to work with because they see no need to change or have no desire to change. On the other hand, the perpetual quitter frequently tries to quit but never succeeds; the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. It is those who struggle over and over to try and overcome addiction that I want to address.
The following examples are fictional but are true to life; they are not atypical of people seeking treatment for addictions. These examples are based on people I’ve worked with during my professional training but I’ve changed specifics (e.g., names, ages) as well as taken the liberty to apply them to a church and gospel setting (e.g., made them members or investigators of the church).
Ralph is 53 years old with a 35 year history of smoking 1-2 packs of cigarettes per day. He recently had a chest scan that revealed a spot on a lung. His doctor told him he needed to stop smoking. Ralph has wanted to quit for years to save money and to save his health but never could. He has a daughter he wants to help through college and as he nears retirement he not only wants to have more money for retirement but he also wants to live long enough to retire. Ralph has tried patches, pills, behavioral treatment, and going cold turkey. Each time he tried quitting Ralph slipped and started smoking again. He means well but Ralph has been unable to quit.
Part of the challenge is that Ralph believes that he can win the battle over smoking. Wait, isn’t that what he wants – to beat the addiction and stop smoking? Yes, but stopping doesn’t require fighting. Part of the problem is that deep down Ralph believes that he can slay the giant of addiction. He can’t. Few people have that strength and willpower and those who do usually develop the ability it through years of practice of self-control, something that years of addiction aren’t exactly evidence of – self-control.
Then Ralph meets the missionaries (or Ralph could be someone newly baptized). They teach him and give him blessings. He is excited and hopeful because he believes in the Savior’s Atonement and its power to heal. Yet, even as his faith grows, Ralph is not quite successful; he is not able to stop for a long enough period in which to be baptized (or, if he was baptized already, he slips back into the addictive behaviors). Ralph starts to despair and feel unworthy, his blossoming faith starts to waiver. What can be done?
Matt is 19 years old and a life-long member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He developed a pornography addiction at age 18 and has struggled with quitting since he first approached his parents and bishop. There were some days when the urges of the addiction were so bad he spent the majority of those days viewing pornography, shutting out the rest of the world. Concurrent with the addiction he struggles with depression, which feeds his addiction and is fed by his addiction. He meets bimonthly with his bishop and weekly with a therapist. He prays, reads the scriptures, and attends church weekly. His addiction, however, remains. Matt tries to quit but the siren lure of pornography catches him back each time.
Both of these cases illustrate a few of the many challenges faced by those who struggle with addictions. Even with the power of the Atonement, behavioral, emotional, psychological, or physical issues might interfere with success in overcoming addictions. Just as not all medical conditions are cured through faith (the vast majority are not), not all addictions are cured by faith and “trying harder”. I’m not downplaying the role that the Atonement must play for many addictions constitute sinful behavior – addiction is not an excuse for sin – but faith and repentance are not panaceas in this life.
Below is a perspective on addiction that I’ve found helpful professionally. It is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an approach to psychotherapy that I feel has much to offer. Part of this approach is discovering true end goals of life and identifying how current behaviors, emotions, and/or cognitions are or are not detracting from those goals. Once overarching goals are recognized, manageable sub-goals can be established and any barriers to fulfillment identified. With these goals in mind, we can understand how some actions are counterproductive, even if they seem like the right actions to be doing (such as trying to beat the monster of addiction – again this post is focused on individuals who struggle to quit or change, not to those few who are the home run hitters).
Addiction is like playing tug-of-war with a monster on the other side of a gorge. You think that if you can just pull the monster in you will be free from your addiction; the problem is that it’s stronger than you are. You might even think that you can cross the chasm and fight it (maybe the other side looks greener too) but you will lose. The only way to conquer it is to let go of the rope and live your life on your side of the chasm. Then the monster will no longer be pulling back on you. In doing this you are not ignoring the monster – it’s there and real but you are simply choosing to stop fighting it so that you can move on to greater and more productive goals.
This concept of overcoming addiction can be quite successful because when you fight things, you dwell on them. If you play tug-of-war with the monster of addiction you focus all your energy on it. In doing so, you allow it to have power over your life. That’s the irony of fighting the monster – you might think that you are choosing to battle it but in reality you are giving up your freedom of choice. You might think that it is a fight on your chosen ground and at your chosen time, but the monster stands there, waiting for you to fight – it enjoys the contest. The monster only has something to do when someone fights with it. This is a fight few people can win.
So instead of playing tug-of-war, should you cross over the bridge to attack the enemy there? No. Once again, that places your focus on the monster; plus then you are in its territory. That’s like an alcoholic who tries to quit by going to a bar just so she can say that she’s there but not drinking – “look how strong I am!”. It’s not a good idea. That is not the way to win. Once again, by striving to do so you focus on the monster. It’s like me telling you to not think about purple bunnies. Whatever you do, do not think about purple bunnies – not the wiggling of their little noses, not the ridiculous purple hue of their fur, not their munching of juicy carrots. Of course, the first thing you just did was think about what I just asked you not to think about – purple bunnies. The more you try to suppress the thought, the worse it gets because you keep your focus on it. Addictions are the same way.
You need to drop the tug-of-war rope and walk away. Acknowledge the monster, accept the monster as part of your life – it’s real and it’s big and scary. When you drop the rope you are not ignoring the monster, you acknowledge it’s there and real, you just choose not to fight. Ignoring it does not solve your problems because then you are in denial and in the river of denial you usually end up eaten by crocodiles. So instead of just ignoring the monsters, say “I know you are there; I know that you are a terrible thing in my life; I know that you want to fight me and I want to fight you but I cannot win. I embrace you and let you go.” Instead of straining and putting all your efforts on fighting the bad in your life, acknowledge it and then fill your life with good. You embrace (or shake hands – whichever metaphorical action you prefer), let go, and move on. What you move on to is important though. You can’t beat addiction with a life full of nothing, addiction will always win over void! Addictions exist in part because of some internal void. So instead, fill your life with good.
The key to overcoming the monster of addiction is establishing positive goals and working towards those goals rather than fighting against the monster. The goals could be related to family, work, hobbies, service, church, or community. It is in striving towards good goals that the monster of addiction finally goes away.
For all the perpetual quitters out there – if you are trying to overcome addiction of any sort (and it could be anything physical or emotional) but find yourself constantly quitting with little success, it is time for a shift in tactics. That shift could be to acknowledge the monster, drop the rope, walk away, and work towards positive goals in your life. Instead of fighting the bad, do good. Jesus “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38) rather than going about fighting evil all the time. In the same manner, addiction no longer has power over you when you stop fighting it and start working towards good goals. It doesn’t mean it’s gone for good – the monster will remain, lying in wait – but if you stop fighting you can start living. This is not an easy thing to do if there are years of addictions to overcome but it is a simple process and will provide success through diligence and over time.
What will give great power to the process and allow you to fully overcome is the Atonement of Christ. Jesus’s Atonement enables you to be free from the shackles of your sin. It enables you to overcome all, just as the Savior overcame all. Sincere repentance will allow you to “shake at the appearance of sin” (2 Nephi 4:31), no longer having a disposition to do evil (Mosiah 5:2). However, just as you must rely on medical treatment in addition to faith in Christ, there are many instances when you must rely on professional help for addictions. When you or the person you love fall, when you stumble along the path of freedom, don’t get discouraged, don’t give up! That is precisely the time when you need to double your determination and your prayers and keep clinging to the iron rod. God loves you and wants you to succeed. Don’t give up hope, keep walking towards your goals. Through faithfulness and honest striving towards Christ, whether in this life or in the next, you can be free. You shall overcome some day.
Rope image by Michael Heiss used under a Creative Commons license.