He had gone too far this time. As if all the lies, deceit, and swindling of money from family and friends were not enough, this time Bill had burglarized our parents’ house. My brother had brazenly stolen anything of pawnshop value, leaving behind a trail of fingerprints and one key piece of evidence: unforced entry (he had earlier in the week stolen a key to our parents’ home).
The sheriff advised my dad of his options. He could withdraw the complaint and deal with Bill outside the legal system, or press charges and hold his son accountable for his actions. After consulting with trusted friends and spending time in agonizing prayer, my parents decided that Bill’s twenty-plus-year addiction to substances (at that time crack cocaine) would not go away without severe intervention. Brokenhearted, my dad pressed charges and testified against his own son in a court of law. Bill was sentenced to one year in prison.
The Addictive Personality Debate
There seems to be a predisposition to addiction on both sides of my family line. Early on, Bill showed obsessive-compulsive behavior and an inability to make course corrections in spite of negative consequences. Like the other addicts in the family, Bill possessed the unfortunate gifts of charm and persuasion. He could talk his way out of just about any kind of trouble—hence no sense of urgency for change. Having counseled addicts throughout my career as a pastor and counselor, I hear similar stories to that of my brother, which leads me to believe that the addictive personality is a fact. Nevertheless, my observations are anecdotal. I wanted to find out what the experts were saying based on empirical research.
At the time that my brother went to prison, I picked up Craig Nakken’s book, “The Addictive Personality.” Nakken’s conclusions are based on his years of clinical work—not so much on controlled research. Still, Nakken has some good insights about the nature of the addictive personality. His premise is that we all struggle with trying to meet the basic needs of happiness and of peace of mind and soul. (By the way, Nakken’s book is not written from a Christian worldview. But he is respectful of our spiritual beliefs.) While the majority of us look toward relationships to meet those needs, the person with the addictive personality turns inward to objects and events to try and capture some sense of pleasurable mood change. The inward journey creates a buzz of intensity that the addict misconstrues as intimacy:
Acting out is a very intense experience for addicts because it involves going against themselves. For compulsive eaters, buying a bag of groceries, eating most of the contents, and then making themselves throw up is a very intense experience. For sex addicts, entering pornographic bookstores and knowing they’ll not leave before having sex with a complete stranger and knowing there’s a chance they could be arrested is a very intense experience.
My Brother Bill had multiple addictions, one of which was exercise bulimia. He ran long distances and then would reward himself with a half-gallon of ice cream. Over time, he destroyed his knees but continued to run with the aid of painkillers. There seemed to be a demon driving this excessive behavior. I think he was afraid of success. When he pursued a sport or job, he would initially excel. Then came the pressure of having to keep it up. Success terrified Bill. He feared being exposed as a fraud. It was easier to default back to intense experiences “against self” than to work through his fear of failure in the context of community. If he “fell of the wagon,” then he would have an excuse for failing.
Weighing the Evidence
Based on consanguine research, Dr. Alan R. Lang of Florida State University, authored an addiction study prepared for the United States National Academy of Sciences in which he reports ”significant personality factors” that contribute to addiction:
- Impulsive behavior, difficulty in delaying gratification, an antisocial personality, and a disposition toward sensation seeking.
- A high value on nonconformity combined with a weak commitment to the goals for achievement valued by the society.
- A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance.
- A sense of heightened stress. This may help explain why adolescence and other stressful transition periods are often associated with the most severe drug and alcohol problems.
Check, check, check, and check. Dr. Lang has described the personality profile of my brother and of most of those whom I have counseled. But if there is a basis for concluding that some of us are predisposed to a unique profile of addictive behavior that we call the addictive personality, then are Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NIV) applicable to the addict?
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
Let’s level the playing field. All of us are born with a predisposition to do things our way instead of God’s way. We addictively turn inward to sin to try and find pleasure, happiness, and peace of mind and soul. Yet, there are those friends and loved ones—or perhaps you and me—who travel the path to self-destruction with greater force and pace. Has God indeed provided a “way out” so that those with addictive personalities can stand up under temptations?
A Modern Allegory
In his book, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis tells of a busload of people who travel to heaven on their way to take up residence in hell. These people appear thin and almost ghostlike in the robust atmosphere of heaven. Most of them immediately flew back to the comfort of their bus. One of the passengers plagued by a talkative red lizard that sits on his shoulder (representing our sin and lust), ventures out into the plains of heaven and encounters an angel. Lewis describes their meeting, which is a parable of God’s invitation to break the power of sin and transform it into a means of strength for His glory:
A mighty angel approached the man and asked, “Would you like me to make the lizard quiet?”
“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.
“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.
“Oh—ah—look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.
“Don’t you want him killed?”
“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”
“It’s the only way,” said the Angel… “Shall I kill it?”
“Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”
“May I kill it?”
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. Some other day, perhaps.”
“There is no other day…”
“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so.”
“Why, you’re hurting me now.”
“I never said I wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
[Suddenly] the Lizard began chattering loudly: “Be careful,” it said. “He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me forever and ever. I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again….”
“Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.
“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
“Then I may?”
“Blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf. Then I saw, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the Ghost materialize into a man, not much smaller than the Angel. At the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew, it changed. Suddenly I stared back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. The man, now free from his torment, climbed upon the stallion that had been his sin and rode into the glowing sunrise towards the Savior.
C.S. Lewis’ portrays sin as a familiar companion who relentlessly distracts us from the better things in life—God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will (Romans 12:2). The ghost man in Lewis’ allegory knows the Lizard is bad for him, but he fears life any other way. He is powerless to kill the Lizard. We too are powerless to rescue ourselves from the grip of sin. But thanks to God, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ—not by our works, but by God’s free gift so no one can take credit for it (see Ephesians 2:8-9).
The ghost man does play a small part in this drama by cooperating with the angel. He repents: he agrees with the angel (Holy Spirit) and submits to the angel’s incisional work. The angel removes the man’s persistent sin and lust, transforming its power and energy into a submissive force that serves (rather than masters) the man. Now the whole man is able to make good use of the incessant and tenacious nature of his sin to pursue God single-mindedly. Similarly, the transformed addict is able to make good use of his intense experience against self (Nakken) to passionately pursue the only safe object of worship that will not destroy him or her: that of his Triune God. The recovering addict often brings to the process transparency—sometimes with brutal honesty—that will attract those around him or her to God.
Path to Recovery
Bill was terrified of serving time in prison. He had heard enough stories of what inmate life was like, that he knew he wanted no part of it. Still, he could not charm his way out of this one. He had come to a good place in his life: the end of his own resources. His only hope was to seek God’s escape route from self-destruction. With good behavior, Bill was released six months early. Now came the hard work of trying to rebuild his life and stay clean.
Branded X with a criminal record, the only job available to Bill was to move furniture across the country with a national van line. All the while, my parents and I were praying to God to bring a trusted friend into Bill’s life to mentor him and keep him on track. That prayer was answered about six months later when Bill met up with a childhood party friend who had become a pastor. Over the next one and one-half years, the pastor/friend generously mentored Bill—providing Bill with a job (maintenance man) and a place to stay (a trailer on the church grounds). All went well until the pastor had an extra-marital affair. Bill had once again misplaced his object of worship—this time in a fallible clergyman.
When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, I will return to the house I left. When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. Luke 11:24-26 (NIV)
Replace Worship of Addiction with Worship of God
When I began my quest toward understanding the addictive personality, this passage of Scripture took on a whole new meaning. Clearly, Jesus is referring to our bondage to sin (which has demonic implications). However, its application works equally well for addiction—particularly when we understand that sin is addictive. It is not enough to say I am sorry and then try to resist by our own willpower. We will lose that battle every time. But if we truly repent, we fill the void of that time we have spent operating in the addictive cycle with new patterns of life that draw us toward God—like C.S. Lewis’ ghost man who, once set free, rides his horse towards heaven.
In my counsel of men who struggle with addiction, the only time that I have seen lasting change (allowing for relapse along the road to recovery) is when they have replaced the rituals of the addictive cycle with new acts of worship toward God. In some instances, the new life patterns had to be as tangible as creating a personal worship service in the space where they once acted out. Others have rediscovered latent or dormant talents that have provided a creative outlet that helps to fill the void.
I recently confessed to my family and to my support group (Samson Society), that I was becoming addicted to iPhone/iPad apps. I was filling the void of downtimes where I would otherwise process life’s disappointments or connect with my family. I removed the game apps that had become the anesthetizing drug. I am spending more time with my wife and kids, but I need a creative outlet that will draw me into the worship of God. I am listening to Contemporary Christian music while driving my car and while working out on my treadmill. It feels great to not be owned by a digital device!
As I have pressed through the seasons of destructive, habitual behavior, every time I have tried to manage my addiction with more knowledge and insight, or more prayer and Scripture, I would feel more like a failure—flawed and incapable of being fully redeemed. The problem wasn’t my escape route. Knowledge, insight, prayer, and Scripture can and will lead us toward God. No, the problem was that I was trying to fix myself outside of the community of believers. I need a community of believers beyond my family who can strengthen my “SEA” legs for the journey. I need Support, Encouragement, and Accountability, and that can only happen in the community.
Replace Isolation with Community
Disenchanted with the pastor and his leadership, Bill moved back to Florida to a town about 90 minutes from my parent’s home. My parents encouraged Bill to reconnect with the church. Whether reality or false perception, my brother felt that the members of the local church were judgmental toward him. Rather than press through the conflict or seek another community of believers, Bill defaulted to old patterns and isolated himself (as is common for an addict). He could not see any way out of the mess that he had made of his life, particularly the hurt that he inflicted on those who loved him and cared for him.
Over the next six months, Bill made just one friend, a neighbor in his trailer park who also struggled with addictions. Bill resumed his routine of exercise bulimia—numbing the pain with long-distance running. Then one Saturday in February of 1995, Bill spent an afternoon with our mom and dad (having one of his best visits) and then returned home to execute his exit plan. Bill consumed a stockpile of painkillers, hid along the roadside of a highway where he usually ran and leaped out in front of a car under the cloak of darkness. Our family was confused and hurt. Bill had given up on community and was picked off by the Enemy. He was not prepared to work through regrets and disappointments. Bill bought the lie: ending his life seemed like the best solution for all concerned.
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25 (NIV)
Our Trinitarian God created all things in the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first man, Adam, was given a female companion, and the two of them were commanded to be fruitful and create a community. Under the Mosaic laws, the community would take its full form of corporate worship, atonement, and salvation. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit would consummate the community as the body of Christ—with each part working in harmony for the edification and blessings of the other parts.
Regretfully, our modern western mindset of individualism has eroded into the American church, stripping away three critical gifts of communal sanctification: confession, repentance, and edification (accountability). Compounding the problem, when churches have tried to exercise these gifts of grace in the community, those who are already vulnerable are further abused by gossipers and legalists who are trying to keep the “club” clean of riffraff. This is why most recovery ministries take place in basements and other “far off reaches” of the church. But this is not of God. Our communities of faith form the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and should shape incarnational healing ministries. Fortunately, there are a growing number of American churches that get it—who are serious about helping their family get well—because when one member is sick the entire body suffers.
Putting It All Together
As you begin this transformational process, please be patient with yourself and with others. It has taken you a long time to get to this place of repentance. So wait on the Holy Spirit to give you direction and strength in replacing destructive patterns of this world with constructive communion with, and worship of, your Triune God. Plan on radically adjusting and lowering your expectations. Relapse is part of the recovery process. But don’t be a lone ranger. Join a band of like-minded brothers or sisters in Christ and share the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings that bring new life (see Philippians 3:10).
– Travel Mercies Fellow Sojourner
Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling