There are a lot of myths about what addiction is and how it functions. Many of these myths are not innocuous misunderstandings but mistakes that shape cultural opinion and public policy in ways that perpetuate unnecessary pain and suffering.
People who are addicted just compulsively and exclusively pursue pleasure.
On a neurological level this is wrong. Addiction is associated with dopamine system in the brain. Dopamine is often connected with pleasure but it is fundamentally about wanting, not liking. This is clear when addictions deepen and a person continues in their addictive behavior long after they have lost the pleasure it might have once brought them.
It is also wrong on a theological level. Biola University professor Kent Dunnington argues “Addiction is not concerned primarily with sensible goods (hedonic pleasures) but rather with moral and intellectual goods.”
When you hear the stories of those struggling with addiction, they might note early pleasure. But what drives the addiction is the moral good that they are pursuing. This might be to ease pain, to experience connection, relieve anxiety or experience transcendence.
In this case, Dunnington continues, addiction can be understood as a kind of misdirected worship. It is a pursuit of the kinds of moral goods that all humans desire but in a way they can not ultimately fulfill.
Relapse is failure.
Relapse is the norm. It is a normal part of growth, not the enemy.
Bad ideas of recovery seem to be wrapped up in bad ideas around conversion. If you believe that conversion is a singular moment in a person’s life after which they never make a mistake again, then you are likely to believe something similar about recovery.
But, if we recognize that we are all people in process and that each of us will have moments that we go back to old patterns and habits, then we can see recovery in a new light. When a person has a setback, they understanding and support, not judgment and isolation.
When a person feels the pressure that they either need abstain for the rest of their lives entirely or be cut off from all their friends and loved ones, the pressure is often too great. What it motivates is for people to hide their relapses, which can often make them worse.
“Harm reduction,” is the term often used in the addiction and recovery world. It is philosophy that recognizes that few people change all at once and forever. Harm reduction encourages, “any positive change.” Over time, these positive changes can add up to large ones. And, it ensures that the relationships of support are there when a person is ready to change even more.
Pain and punishment will solve the problem.
One of the fundamental truths of Christianity is that grace and love, not judgment and punishment, are the most transformative forces in the universe.
Addiction is, by its very definition, self-harming behavior. And addiction damages the parts of the brain that helps us with long-term decision making. Increasing harm and long term consequences for those struggling with addiction doesn’t make sense. In fact, it actively makes addiction worse.
A study of more than 1,300 injecting drug users in Baltimore from 1988 to 2000 illustrates the point. The researchers wanted to find out what worked or what could predict recovery and examined demographic factors, drug use patterns, and whether the person sought drug treatment. The authors write, “Of great interest is that only a history of incarceration differentiated persons who successfully stopped using drugs from those who continued to use injection drugs over a 12-year period.”
Part of a successful recovery isn’t so much about the behavior a person stops doing as it is about the new goals they start working to achieve in their life. Having something worth doing that isn’t your addiction is key to overcoming it. Our current criminal justice system takes away people’s motivation and reason for change by limiting their opportunity and hope for a better life.
Drugs are bad.
This probably sounds counter-intuitive if not just plain wrong. But this is a lesson I learned from experience. About 10 years ago I had a medical procedure go wrong and experienced incredibly painful complications. It was bad enough that I was admitted into the ICU and when into acute respiratory distress. I was put on heavy doses of narcotics.
As my doctor’s explained later, my body was under so much stress that if they hadn’t treated the pain, I might have experienced organ failure and died. One of the drugs they put me on was fentanyl, the synthetic opioid now driving overdoses across the country.
What can be a life saving medicine can also be a deadly poison.
Going all the way back to Augustine, Christians have had a theology that teaches everything created is good. What we call “sin” or “evil” is really just a disordering of that good. Fentanyl, while dangerous, isn’t inherently evil. It is our relationship to the drug that is good or bad.
That was what I learned as the months went by and what began as a medically needed dosage developed into an addiction. The drug I was on started doing more harm than good and instead of just giving me control over my pain I was starting to lose control.
It wasn’t that I simply pursued pleasure but was seeking relief from pain and the anxiety of being near-death in the hospital. When I struggled to abstain and relapsed, it wasn’t abject failure but another opportunity for growth. And it was never judgment, blame or confrontation that helped me along the way. Always empathy, compassion and grace.
Attacking a particular substance, or the people who use it, misses the point. We can make the most progress by focusing on the demand side of the equation more than the supply side. We need to understand the role an addiction plays in a person’s life and figure out how to help meet those needs. For some people, that could be access to housing or employment. Others might need medically assisted treatment (MAT) or therapies like Motivational Interviewing or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or connection to relationships and communities of mutual support.
These lessons aren’t foreign to the Christian tradition but at the heart of it. Sadly, too often Christians have been a part of creating a culture of unrealistic expectations and shame around addiction. Some have focused on simply condemning a substance and those who use it instead of asking what pain, trauma or need might have driven someone to use in the first place.
We need to change how we talk about addiction and treat those who are struggling with it. Christians should be at the front line of reducing the stigma and shame around addiction, not increasing it.
Timothy McMahan King is the author of "Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals about Us" (Herald Press) and the former chief strategy officer with Sojourners.