The Tragedy of Addiction

I've seen people talking about addiction lately. I don't want to talk about the politics though, I want to talk about the people. I want to talk about overcoming.
Earlier this week, I caught a headline that said Demi Lovato was in the hospital recovering from an overdose.[1] Although I've never really been a fan, I have been a supporter since I heard about her struggles with body image, mental illness, and drugs. I thought it was important that she was open and honest with her fan base about the things she struggled with, and more than anything, I wanted her overcome those challenges.

For those unfamiliar with Ms. Lovato, she is one of the many teen stars that made a name for herself through Disney (and subsequently suffered sort of breakdown). She starred in several Disney Channel Original Movies, dated one of the Jonas brothers, and was best friends with fellow Disney star Selena Gomez. By her late teens, Ms. Lovato had an eating disorder (presumably from industry pressures to be thin), struggled with bipolar disorder, and was experimenting with drugs. She opened up about this with her fans, after her first release from rehab. At the time, she claimed sobriety, though she was still battling the addiction. In late 2017 she released a new documentary, this time admitting to the challenges she'd face during her first revelation of the issue, and confirming that she was finally sober. Earlier this year, she released the song "Sober," confessing that she had fallen off the wagon after 6 years of sobriety. Last week, she was rushed to the hospital for an overdose.[1]

The story is tragic, and I think it's one that we as Christians really need to understand. Stepping away from the dangers of Hollywood, conspiracies about the Illuminati, and other such topics that would normally be brought up, I think it's important to talk about mental health and addiction. The church I attend just did a fantastic series on mental health, but I don't think we talked about addiction once during that time.

Is it a Choice or a Disease?

There are all types of addictions, including social media.[6]
Photocredit: Unsplash.com/Marc Schäfer
Right now, my social media is buzzing about addiction and it has absolutely nothing to do with Ms. Lovato. People are talking about the opioid epidemic,[2] racism, and whether addiction is a choice or a disease. For the sake of staying on topic, we're not going to dive into the coverage of opioid users versus say, crackheads, and how that ties into race. Instead we're going to focus of addiction. Is it a choice? Is it a disease?

Long story short, I believe that addiction is a complex combination of both choice and disease.

A Choice

A choice is a decision you actively make.[7][8] For instance I chose to stop drinking soda and start drinking water of my on free will. Similarly, people choose to try drugs that are known to be addictive (e.g., heroin, meth, opioids, etc.). Unlike diseases such as cancer, addiction is 100% preventable; all you have to do is simply never use drugs.

A Disease

A disease is something that eats away inside of you; it's a sickness that while you maybe able to keep in check, you really have no control over. Addiction is a disease because once you are addicted to something, you can't simply choose to not be addicted. In fact, you can actually die from the withdrawal symptoms if not under professional care.[3] Clearly, that's more like a disease.

Muddy Water

Really, the situation is a bit like muddy water. When we say that people choose addiction, we fail to really look at what leads to that decision.

There are certain things that people use on a regular basis that can lead to addiction, like caffeine, alcohol, and even weed,[4] but because most people don't have a problem with these substances, we think of them as harmless. People don't think twice about trying a soda, a glass of wine, or even smoking weed. I can see how someone falls down the rabbit hole with these substances. When they chose that first drink or that first smoke, they didn't know they were choosing a path that would lead to addiction. This is no different that people eating unhealthy food ending up obese, or people perming their hair ending up with hair loss. The actual end result isn't something the person sees as a possibility when they take the first step.

However, as I was recounting Ms. Lovato's story to my parents, I couldn't understand why she tried drugs in the first place. We all learned that hard drugs are seriously addictive. Not only can you become addicted from the first use, you can die from the first use too. Doing drugs never seemed like a cool thing to do and even after 8 years split between two notorious party schools, I've never been in a situation where hard drugs were considered cool. It is this disconnect that leads us to feel unsympathetic toward people who end up addicted to these substances.

Mental Health

As I mentioned earlier, Ms. Lovato admits to suffering from a mental illness, and I have a hunch, most addicts suffer from a mental illness. If we are manic, depressed, or insecure, we are more susceptible to peer pressure and more likely to make poor decisions. Untreated mental illness can lead to desperation and desperation can also lead to poor choices. So, why did someone choose to take a needle and inject heroin into their veins, knowing the damage it could cause? Because something else wasn't right. Whether they suffered abuse, are in a desperate situation or any slew of problems, there is an underlying reason why that first use happened, and I'm willing to bet that underlying reason is not a choice.

The Way Out

Self control (or temperance) is one of the fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23. The fruit of the Spirit are traits you begin to exhibit once you allow the Holy Spirit to come into your life. These traits are really difficult for us to master due to the fall. Though we might exhibit some of them without the Holy Spirit, our level of commitment to them fluctuates, and our expression of the traits is usually conditional. Only the Holy Spirit can give us continuous and unconditional expression of these traits. Self control is also what you need to battle addiction, but it's actually not the only fruit of the Spirit you need: love, patience, and joy also play a role.

Understanding Addiction

If you know me well, you're probably wondering why I think I know something about this. I've never even seen "soft" drugs like weed, let alone hard drugs. While I have family members who may have struggled with addiction, none of them were around me often enough for me to really see the process. So, how can I be empathetic to their situation? How can I refocus my mind from thinking they chose that lifestyle and get what they deserve, to realizing they need powerful help to get out? How can I be empathetic?

Well, I am empathetic because I, too, suffer from addiction. The only difference is that my addiction is accepted by society and doesn't prevent me from functioning on a day to day basis. What am I addicted to? Soda, specifically dark sodas like Coke, Pepsi, and RC (RC wins this race hands down, by the way). I hear you correcting me that it's the caffeine I'm addicted to, but in all the times I've given up soda, I've only experienced withdrawal symptoms when the timing lined up with my monthly cycle. The symptoms (i.e., headache and fatigue) are also symptoms of my cycle that I regularly experience. While caffeine (and sugar) probably play a role, I genuinely just love the taste of soda.

I haven't had a single soda since the last week in April; not even a caffeine free soda. I worked my way from an insane 4 20oz bottles a day in high school, to 2-3 in college, to 1-2 in grad school, to once a week last November, to once a month in January, and finally to none at all in May. My skin has definitely improved, but outside of that, nothing has really changed. I'm not having withdrawal symptoms, my mood is fine, my energy level is fine (despite the fact that I have anemia); everything is fine. There have been absolutely no negative consequences for quitting soda, and yet, when I hear people in my office twist the cap of a Coke or see them drink one, I want one. When I walk past the vending machines, I want to stop and buy a soda, even though it's throwing away money. When I get stressed at work, when I get mad people, when I'm upset, and even when I want to celebrate, I want a soda. Despite cutting down my soda intake gradually, and being soda free for almost 3 months, I still get an overwhelming desire to have one for almost every shift in mood. What's more is that in those moments, I know it's illogical. I know that there is no value in drinking the soda, but I can't help wanting it.

Can you go with out your coffee fix? Maybe it's tea, or something else all together. Is there something you have everyday that it messes you up if you can't have it?

I asked myself: if it's so hard for me to walk away from soda, how much more so is it for someone to walk away from a Schedule I drug? Caffeine, the main ingredient in soda that is considered addictive, isn't even considered a drug to be classified in the schedules![5] I understand perfectly well that it may be a choice that got you into addiction, but it certainly won't be so simple getting out.

You Need God

The fruits of the Spirit, like self-control, are cultivated by surrendering to the Holy Spirit, which means we are incapable of healing ourselves without trusting in God first. Knowing that the best help for an addict is a relationship with God, is it not our duty to introduce or reacquaint these individuals with God? We know from Jesus' example that it doesn't matter how a person got where they are, it is the Church's responsibility to reach out and lead them to Christ.

Love, Joy, & Patience

Earlier, I mentioned that you need love, joy, and patience in addition to self control; I also mentioned the aspect of mental illness playing a role in addiction. Generally, people who become addicted to substances are looking for a way to relieve stress, anxiety, and/or depression. It is when I am the most stressed out that I want a soda. There's this strange feeling that drinking the soda will alleviate the stress—doesn't that sound like a moment I should be turning to God, instead? I'm sure that the same is true for those who are struggling with any addiction. Whatever emotional distress or mental illness triggered their first experiment with the subject of their addiction, will tempt them back toward the addiction.

Love, joy, and patience are great tools to combat emotional distress and mental illness. Patience allows us to approach our goals slowly, and rebound from our failures. Joy carries us when we are sad; it reminds us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel if we continue forward. And love, love conquers all things. We need self love, we need God's love, but we also need each other's love. This is why I think it's important for us to understand addiction as Christians. When we ensure that everyone around us feels loved, we help keep them out of desperation. We listen to their fears and concerns. We reassure them that they are not a failure. We lift them up so that they don't have to look for love in the form of a pill or liquid or powder. By actively loving them, we empower them to overcome temptation. So love your neighbor and be a light in the dark of hopelessness.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, first know that you are loved, and second, please seek help from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline.

References

  1. Dave Quinn and Melody Chiu. "Demi Lovato Has Agreed to Enter Rehab: 'She Understands the Severity of Her Overdose' Says Source". People. August 3, 2018
  2. "Opioid Overdose Crisis". National Institute on Drug Abuse. March 2018
  3. "Can Heroin, Benzo or Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Death?". American Addiction Centers; visited August 2018
  4. "Is marijuana addictive?". National Institute on Drug Abuse. June 2018
  5. Academy of Pediatrics. "Understanding Drug Schedules". Academy of Pediatrics, vis Healthy Children. January 23, 2015
  6. Mark Griffiths and Daria Kuss. "6 questions help reveal if you’re addicted to social media". The Washington Post. April 25, 2018
  7. "Choice". Merriam Webster; visited August 2018
  8. "Choose". Merriam Webster; visited August 2018

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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