September 28, 2014
This morning we continue our series of messages based upon the responses you provided to the three questions I asked throughout the summer. Today’s message is one that touches on a topic rarely discussed in church – addiction.
How often do you hear the word addiction in church? Very rarely, I imagine. Addiction is something church people have often claimed exists out there – outside of the church. Surely addiction doesn’t exist inside the church!
But it does.
The people who struggle with addiction are not only your neighbors, your coworkers, your friends, and your family members; they are also your fellow church members, elders and deacons, Sunday School teachers and, yes, even ministers. Several years ago, one of my former ministers made national news when he announced he was entering rehab, seeking treatment for an addiction to alcohol. The reaction of many people was shock – that’s not supposed to happen to people like that!
But it does. Addiction can happen to anyone.
People struggling with addictions are everywhere because the numbers are staggeringly high. Some estimates place the number of Americans who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction as high as 100 million – almost 1 of every 3 Americans. If we translate that to our congregation, based on last week’s attendance of about 200 people, 66 of us would have addictions. Or, to make it more visible, one of our three sections of seating would be filled with people struggling with an addiction. That’s a lot of people.
But a lot of people struggle with addiction. You might be surprised to learn that in Shelbyville, in an average week, four people overdose on heroin. Heroin was almost nonexistent in our community until recently, and now heroin use has risen to alarming proportions.
This is a difficult message, because it deals with a difficult topic. It is a difficult topic because it has wreaked so much havoc in families, as addiction has damaged and destroyed lives and relationships.
I came of age in the late 60s and the 70s, when drug use rapidly escalated. Alcohol has been around for millennia, and drugs in some forms, but in our culture drug use really took off with my generation, and when drugs came into widespread use in the 60s and 70s they were viewed very differently. Most people, at that time, were not aware of the dangers, which is not a defense in any way of drug use.
And I’ll be up front with you, just in case you are wondering – I was not a drug user in my younger years. Drugs were all around me during that era. My friends used drugs at least occasionally, and many of them regularly, and I watched as some of them developed addictions and as we also lost some of them.
Drugs never appealed to me. I didn’t then – and I still don’t – like the idea of ingesting any substance that would take control of my thoughts and actions. I’ll also be honest and admit another fear – I was afraid I might like them and would develop a dependency. There has been enough addictive behavior in my extended family that I knew dependency could become a problem.
I took my first drink of alcohol in junior high. Some friends and I took an empty peanut butter jar and got into a neighboring parent’s liquor cabinet. I thought it was the worst stuff I ever tasted. So allow me to add this warning – if you are worried about your children or grandchildren using drugs and alcohol take a close look around your home, because in many homes both are easily accessible.
Addiction is, I should add, something that is on a continuum. All of us, undoubtedly, have some form of compulsive behavior, but not all compulsive behaviors becomes addictive or damaging. I’m a “checker,” for instance. A checker is someone who must continually “check” to make sure something has been done. Some of you, for instance, may check multiple times each evening to be sure your doors are locked. I do that with my car, particularly when I travel. When I stay at a hotel I check to be sure all the doors on my car are locked. While attending the Regional Assembly in Hopkinsville last week I went through my usual routine of checking my car doors. The problem, though, is that when I had to get another car early this year, after someone hit and totaled mine, I purchased one in a hurry and didn’t check out all the options. One of the options on my care – meant to be a convenience, I’m sure – is a feature that automatically unlocks the doors when you reach for the handle, as long as the key is in your pocket. This is difficult when I’m checking to make sure the doors are locked. The first night at the hotel I pushed the button on the key to lock the doors, but when I reached out to check the door to be sure it was locked, it automatically unlocked. I pushed the button again and locked the door, and when I reached out to check the door, it unlocked again. I thought I might be there all evening! Being a checker is slightly annoying at times, but it is not on the level of drug addiction. So, some addictions can be relatively mild, but others can be life-threatening.
I am not an in any way an expert on addictions, but I want to share several points with you today that I believe are very important.
1. Addiction has to do with far more than just drugs or alcohol.
So far this morning I have only spoken about addiction in relation to drugs and alcohol, but addiction stretches far beyond drugs and alcohol. Addiction can come in many different forms. It is most commonly known through drugs and alcohol, but addiction can also be about many kinds of behaviors, such as compulsive shopping or spending, particular kinds of patterns in relationships, activity, phones (researchers have found that when you check your phone and have a text or email your brain releases a small amount of dopamine, which trains you to check your phone often because of the physiological reward that you receive. Sounds like an addiction to me), and how we deal with food – which may be the largest addiction in our society. In fact, listen to some of these shocking statistics about eating disorders, that remind us of the terrible burden of expectations that we place upon women, especially young women, in our society –
—Eating disorders, which affect women disproportionally to men, because we place terribly onerous expectations upon women, affect 1 in 5 women, and 90% of those are between the ages of 12 and 25.
—Up to 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder) in the U.S.
—Only 10% of people with eating disorders receive treatment.
—91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting.
— Among adolescents, anorexia is the third most common chronic illness.
—Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
—The mortality rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old.
2. Addiction is a physical disease and is aggravated by other factors, especially stress.
Drugs and alcohol are not addictive simply because people want to use drugs or alcohol – addiction almost always comes for reasons deeper than a simple desire to use alcohol or drugs.
Beginning down the path to addiction begins with some kind of trigger, such as stress. We live in incredibly stressful times. There are so many things of which we are very rightfully concerned and that concern manifests itself in stress. We are concerned about our world, the world our children and grandchildren will inherit. It is a world torn asunder by war, it is a world degraded environmentally to the point of disaster, it is a world that has incredible financial challenges. We feel the stress that emanates from insecurity over our family, health, and financial challenges, and all these factors can bring us to a point of despair that makes us vulnerable to self-medication.
3. Addiction has physical, psychological, and spiritual causes.
Addiction is, first of all, a very real physical illness. It’s not a weakness that people need to simply “get over,” but represents the reality that some people have a physiological makeup that causes them to be especially vulnerable to drug or alcohol dependency. There is always a “trigger” that brings a person to some type of substance, but once they turn to that substance there is a physical reaction that keeps them tied to that substance.
Addiction occurs, then, when a person’s biological make-up is given a substance, and the body responds to that substance in a way that makes it almost impossible to function without that substance. Addiction helps a person to function, ironically, in a way they believe they cannot function when they are sober. But the difficulty is that with addiction there is what we might call the law of diminishing return, which means it takes an increasing amount of a substance to produce the desired effect.
There are psychological causes as well, and those causes are often what cause a person to turn to a substance in the first place. Many people turn to drugs, alcohol, eating, or some other behavior in order to deal with trauma that has taken place in their lives.
The most common reason people begin the path down the road to addiction is because they want to self-medicate themselves; they want to numb themselves to a problem with which they cannot cope; they want to do something that will take away some pain, some fear, some sense of failure, or deal with some trauma.
Most of us develop patterns in life – patterns of repetition, for instance – that provide us with some measure of comfort, as long as we repeat those patterns. People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for instance, repeat patterns or behaviors as a way of bringing comfort or a sense of order to their lives.
Addiction has spiritual causes as well, such as the emptiness or lack of purpose that many people feel about their lives. Those feelings can come at different stages of life and can come in early adulthood as a person has a crisis about what to do with their lives, or in middle age as a person looks back at their life and wonders if it has had any meaning.
4. Addiction thrives on secrecy, silence, and shame.
We live in a society where so many people will share the most intimate details of their lives, but we continue to hide our struggles with addiction. There is a great sense of shame involved with addiction, and that shame causes people to go to great lengths to hide their addictions.
But it is important to remember that you are not alone. Addiction tends to be an isolating condition, and when people feel isolated they believe that no one else can relate to their circumstances, but there are many, many people who know exactly what you are going through.
There are certain steps necessary to take in order to overcome addictions –
1. Admit that you are powerless over the addiction and cannot overcome it on your own.
One of the great falsehoods of addiction is this – I can do this. I can beat this addiction. And I’ll start tomorrow. Tomorrow never comes, but as long as a person says they are going to change, beginning tomorrow, they will remain in the throes of their addiction.
There are the very rare few who are able to overcome their addictions on their own, but those people are very rare. The far majority of people cannot do so on their own, which means it is counterproductive to tell an addict they just need to get over it.
2. You must ask for help.
It is never a sign of weakness to ask for help. I think many people believe it is a sign of weakness, and I don’t know where that comes from but it is a lie that too many people believe.
Never be afraid to ask for help. Never hesitate to ask for help. Let me repeat that. Never be afraid to ask for help. Never hesitate to ask for help. Do not allow the shame that is so often present with addiction keep you from admitting that you need help. Don’t allow pride to keep you from seeking help. Asking for help is preferable to where addiction leads, which is to broken relationships and, very likely, eventual death.
3. Your family is affected by your addiction.
Back in the 80s I received a little bit of training related to adult children of alcoholics. There are patterns that are so common to people who grow up in a home with an alcoholic that it can be relatively easy to spot the people who grow up in a home where alcoholism was present.
It is not just the addict who is affected by addiction; it is the entire family. The entire family lives in damage control and containment control and in order to manage the dysfunction that comes because of addiction.
And the most dangerous way in which a family can deal with addiction is through codependency, which can take a couple of forms. It can take the form of enabling, which actually helps the person to continue in their addiction because of a failure to confront the addiction but also through providing money, excuses, or other things that maintain the addiction. Codependency can also lead to a complete restructuring of the manner in which other family members operate, such as taking over the managing of all the family needs, and when an addict gets sober the codependent person loses their sense of identity and struggles to rebuild and restructure their life.
4. Addiction is a lie.
I love the ironic moments of life. When I arrived in Hopkinsville I needed to print something and get it in the mail, but I didn’t have any envelopes so I went to a local office supply store. Outside of the store, in the sidewalk, was a big sign that said Slow computer? We fix slow computers? This was a sign that was one that wasn’t hanging in the window, but was a folding sign that someone had to carry out and put in that particular place. I walk into the store to get a box of envelopes and walk to the checkout counter, where there is only one person in line, and it is taking a long time. The customer and employee are just standing there, and I don’t wait well, so I’m getting very impatient. When it’s finally my turn the person working the counter says to me, with no recognition of the irony, I apologize for the wait, but our computers are running really slow. I couldn’t help but chuckle, and I mumbled something about irony, and as I walked out of the store I thought about taking the sign down and shouting that’s a lie! It doesn’t work!
You can’t pretend that something works when it obviously does not work. But pretending does not make it work. I say to any addict that what you are doing does not work. I don’t care how much a person thinks it’s working, it does not work, and you absolutely have to come to that realization in order to move forward and get help.
That sign said something that was obviously not true. Addiction does as well. Addiction will feed you the lie that if you just take this drink or take this pill life will be better. And if it’s not better, take some more, and continuing taking it. Addiction is a lie. It will not improve your life. It will not make your life better. It will destroy your life, and destroy you.
And so my final word today is – get help. If you are struggling with an addiction or are a family member of someone who is, get help.