A few thoughts on addiction

In my own life experience, in both Christian and non-Christian circles I have encountered the idea that a person can be addicted to something good as well as something bad. Sometimes the rationale for this idea is based on Ephesians 5:18, which reads thus: “Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit” (NLT).

So, the idea becomes this: if you are going to be addicted to something, then make it something good (and Christian) – like Bible study, for instance!

On the flip side, folk don’t tend to use the word ‘addicted’ in any positive sense most of the time. From alcohol to doughnuts (yes, this is the British spelling!) to chocolate to Bombay mix to cheese – as well as ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs – many users of any or all of the above would have their peers believe they are ‘not addicted.’

Here in the UK the general use of the English language has scarcely been worse in the history of general education since general education became available. So few of us really know the actual definitions of many of the words we use, and this sort of ignorance is increasingly seen as a virtue. Relationships and communications are suffering as a result. However. Question: what exactly does the word ‘addiction’ mean?

Let us be grateful that Wikipedia is still with us:

“Historically, addiction has been defined as physical and/or psychological dependence on psychoactive substances (for example alcohol,tobaccoheroin, caffeine and other drugs) which cross the blood-brain barrier once ingested, temporarily altering the chemical milieu of the brain.”

This works for most of us, I think. But for many of us, the definition stops there, and so our grasp of the word-concept is less broad (and less accurate) than would be ideal. Interestingly, the American Society of Addiction Medicine begins their definition of addiction by describing it as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.”[6][7]

How many of us consider addiction in terms of disease? And ‘chronic disease’ at that?

We can also be addicted to behavioural practices – not just substances. That is why the second definition quoted above is so interesting and enlightening! Anything that stimulates a sense of what the brain regards as a ‘reward’ is logged in the memory, and at times when relief is sought from physical, emotional or psychological pain or distress of whatever sort, the memory of potential reward is stimulated, which then services the motivation needed to consume whatever substance it may be – including food – with the promise of a ‘reward.’

But this ‘reward’ is not really a reward in the most holistically viable, personally fulfilling sense of the word. That is why I used the word ‘relief’ earlier – it is often a means from getting away from something else. It goes without saying that there is way more that could be said on this – the theologian in me has not gotten going yet – but I am pretty sure that anyone who’s gotten this far has gotten the gist of this up to now!

I want to talk about one of my addictions. For years, I have jokingly (and this really is the point!) referred to myself as a “carboholic.” I absolutely LOVE carbohydrates – but especially of the heavy-duty-starch variety: bread, potatoes, pasta, oats, grains…and at times I have had to regulate my cereal eating because I could literally eat half a 500-gram-box of anything from cornflakes to Cheerios to malted cereal at one breakfast sitting, and it was getting expensive! There is pretty much no form of potato product that I cannot consume in quantities that baffle most people.

I have come a long, long way with my ‘carboholism,’ but it has still really caught me out at times. But there are two aspects of this I want to zero in on. Firstly, I am dismayed about the fact that I was able to joke about being addicted to carbohydrates in such a way when addiction is NOT something to joke about! For me to be a carboholic is no longer an amusing joke – it was never a joke in the first place. I know that this is serious because I look to carbohydrate products when I want to celebrate something, and also when I want to drown my sorrows. And since I looked at my overall eating habits in the eye I have been learning just how many Christians besides myself have massive psychological food issues (but I have mentioned this in one or two previous posts).

The second point is this: can you actually be addicted to something that really is good for you?

Or, put another way, if you are addicted to something, what are the chances that it really is a bad thing for you?

Still no time to explore the theology of addiction right now, but – this is why a definition of addiction that focusses on dependency alone is so limited. We are all dependent on water and oxygen to continue life! We all need to interact with other human beings (yes, some will question that, but I’ll defend it to the hilt if need be). A person who is in top physical condition may be unable to go 24 hours without some form of exercise. I know one guy who just LOVES cycling – he is rarely happier than on any form of bike.

Water – oxygen (best in the form of fresh air) – exercise; we could add sunlight and a few other things (not least positive and genuine relationships with other human beings) – is it in any way correct to say that one can be ‘addicted’ to these things because one is dependent on them?

Perhaps we need to differentiate between ‘positive dependency’ and ‘negative dependency.’ Addiction falls into the latter category, and this is now the nexus of my second point: my carboholic dependency of the heavy-duty-starch variety is a more serious problem for me than I have ever realised. For some time I have realised that I may have a wheat allergy, and in the last eight months I have been in a full-scale battle with my body and my mind as I face the fact that I am almost certainly one of those people who really needs to give up gluten for good.

I am finally ready to admit that deep down, some part of me has always been concerned about this capacity I have to smash huge quantities of these sorts of carbs. I mentioned eating half a box of cereal at one go – I also used to eat half a loaf of bread at one go. In both cases I accepted that beyond the financial implications, that was sheer gluttony, so I stopped. But I never dealt with the substance itself, and I see in hindsight that although I stopped eating half a loaf of bread, I creatively found other ways to keep my carb intake higher than necessary and pretend that I wasn’t really doing that.

So, to conclude.

If you are unnaturally dependent on something or someone – you may need to take cold, hard stock of your situation. Positive dependence is one thing. A blind person needs their guide dog. A disabled person needs their carer.  A blog writer needs their internet connection! But if you are unable to do without something or someone – to the point where even if you go two weeks without whatever or whoever it is, you still think about it (or them) more often than not – then I’m not saying that it is bad, or that you are addicted – I would have no right to do that when I don’t know the facts.

But if you have never thought about this issue before, then please think now. Certain friendships – certain practices – certain substances (legal and illegal) – may be hurting you more than helping you – and so you may need to rewire some of your circuitry in order to live a more genuine and positive existence. Bread and pasta and cereal are not evil things, but they are things which ultimately do me more harm than good – and they are things to which I am addicted!

We are to avoid intoxication of all sorts – not just wine – but instead be filled with the Holy Spirit. If you’ve never read the whole of 1 Corinthians 6, only the famous verse 18 – then I do encourage you to prayerfully read the whole chapter. It could change your life forever…

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