We think of glazed eyes and emaciated bodies, skin that looks bruised and old and minds that cannot be reached. We think of lost souls and it makes us afraid to trust anything, even life itself. So what is an addiction? Is it a very specific craving that grows to occupy its host entirely or is it much more than that?
Lets take the word off the shelf and examine it. Perhaps getting to know it might help to lessen the fear and we operate more efficiently with less fear. The first thing we realize when we hold ‘addiction’ towards the light is that we all suffer from it in some form or another. This is the big picture view of addiction and like all big pictures it offers much needed perspective. This is a gross liberty, you say. Presumptuous and possibly libelous. But check it out. What drives us? What lies behind our most persistent desires?
Addiction is not only about substance abuse. It is true that addiction attracts the most attention in our society when it concerns illegal substances but addiction is subtler than that. Much has been written about the more blatant aspects of addiction with the principal focus on drugs, alcohol and smoking but we humans can get addicted to anything. Addiction implies addictive behavior and addictive behavior can develop around activities like eating, gym, work, relationships and people.
We can be addicted to ideas and mindsets and ideologies and moods. All of this goes relatively unnoticed but any and all of it can have negative effects. Take relationships for example. Theresa’s mom is addicted to abusive men. Theresa watches as her mom goes through one after the other. She patches the bruises and puts her mom back together and takes her by the shoulders and says firmly: “No more, mom. No more.” But her mom feels she cannot stop. She only acknowledges she has a problem when the last man leaves but when the next one crests the horizon she mistakes him for the solution. She stops seeing. Her addiction makes her blind. Meanwhile Theresa takes to drinking heavily. Her mother’s fear of seeing infects her daughter so that the family is now fuelled by an aching emptiness that needs filling. This is the psychology of addiction, but it is also the spirituality of addiction.
If your teen has a serious addiction that needs your immediate attention, call in everyone who is anyone in the field of drug rehabilitation. Listen to everyone and then get help from the school of thought that sounds the most like truth to you. At this stage, action is required and there is plenty of advice out there on what kind of action to use. This is not what I have chosen to focus on.
I am looking at the causes of addiction because I am a great believer in that old saying: prevention is better than cure. I believe that if we can go deep and try to understand the mechanics of addiction we can be most useful as parents when our children have to deal with their own.
Gerald G. May is author of one of the most compassionate, gentle and understanding books that has been written on the subject of addiction. He calls his book Addiction and Grace after the dichotomy that he believes lies at the core of much, if not all, addictive behavior. I have savored this book and passed it on to my children. They in turn have passed it on to their friends. I highly recommend this most enlightened spiritual and psychologically sound treatise on a problem that is much more common than we like to think. Gerald May, a psychiatrist who holds the position of Senior Fellow in Contemplative Theology and Psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, claims that addiction is widespread and that it has at it’s core a spiritual longing for God or Love that has mistakenly attached itself to something else.
Teenagers are such vulnerable new adults. They are only just beginning to learn about the great longings that haunt us humans. Sometimes these longings are too poignant to be expressed and they become perverted into addictions that lead us badly astray. Gerald May teaches us to look fearlessly into the depths of the ugliest of teen addictions so that we can see the original longing. I believe that if you are to really treat addictions you cannot forget this that lies at the root of it all. This knowledge should color every other practical action you may have to take to save your child’s life.