Our brains’ wiring and society’s temptations put us at risk of various addictions. We must escape these powerful and destructive habits. Here’s how to start.
It’s routine, comfortable, pleasing to the senses, and something we look forward to perhaps on a daily basis. It is also, however, something we hate and desperately want to remove from our lives.
It’s addiction, and it’s been winning for far too long.
The word has different meanings and connotations based on our experiences. The more tame and playful thought is of a person who simply “can’t live” without peanut butter, coffee or a favorite TV show every day. This tame version of the word, however, can obscure the wretched and miserable nature of true addiction and how it completely changes the lives of those who’ve been snared by it.
Yes, snared. Those who have taken the first step to recovery—admitting they have a problem—often view themselves as in bondage to a cruel overlord. They want to stop. They want a normal life back, not one that’s dependent on a substance for happiness. They just … can’t … stop.
The most obvious examples are addictions to narcotics, opioids and painkillers. These often result in trips to rehab centers and intense, medically supervised detox to get some sense of control back. However, what we should “just say no” to has expanded tenfold in recent years. Drugs are not the only things that mess with our minds.
Addiction can be seen in all of the following actions:
- Treating mind-altering drugs as more important than other people.
- Erasing an Internet history that includes evidence of hours of pornography and sex chat rooms.
- Sneaking outside to smoke and then using air fresheners and mouthwash to cover it up.
- Sheepishly trying to explain to a loved one why several thousand dollars has been gambled away.
- Clumsily getting ready for work in the morning after staying up all night playing video games.
- One drink leading to 10, with each new resulting situation being thought of as “rock bottom.”
Addiction generally eases its victim into ultimately destructive behavior by starting off slowly and promising that it is optional—until it becomes so powerful that it takes charge. It literally uses our brain against us, and we let it.
Remembering shortcuts to pleasure: addiction’s chemical warfare
The scientific background of addiction is widely covered in books and websites. Here’s a brief layman’s summary:
Addiction tricks our brains into thinking we are naturally happy and then enslaves us to that illusion. We use something (like pornography or drugs or high-risk public behaviors) to overflow our brains with pleasure neurotransmitters like dopamine. Gaining pleasure this way works so fast and so well that our brain dutifully remembers how well it worked and the conditions. Therefore, when the same conditions pop up again, our brain quickly reminds us of this quick path to pleasure. It definitely wants that again.
Everything can seem pretty great so far, except that the rush of dopamine and the manipulation of the neurotransmitter receptors actually force the brain to change in order to adapt. It either reduces the dopamine or the dopamine receptors. So, once or twice a month watching porn isn’t enough now; neither is a slight buzz off two drinks or betting just $100 online. It used to be enough, but after our brain adapts to such an unnatural rush of pleasure neurotransmitters, it starts to ask for more and more.
This process can go on to such an extreme that natural pleasure (sexual intercourse with a spouse, and even eating chocolate cake) can barely be felt at all. The only thing our bodies will want is the fake stuff given to us by the addictive habit.
After the brain keeps readjusting and adapting, it gets to the point that just the thought of the substance creates an overpowering compulsion (often referred to by addicts as “the wave”). It makes us so excited, and it entices us to do whatever it takes to achieve the high that we remember so well.
Porn addicts look to the more hardcore and bizarre, their natural sexual preferences shifting. Gambling addicts bet their life savings, unable to get pleasure from betting small amounts. Smokers go through several packs a day. Drug addicts overdose. Video game addicts completely drive away their loved ones.
But it all started so small.
Barriers to confronting addiction
With all this information readily available, why are so many receiving counseling for addiction? Why are rehab centers packed? Why is the number of addicted individuals, and the number of substances we can become addicted to, growing?
Many societal, cultural and technological reasons contribute to this, of course, but the personal barriers to actually confronting addiction are so powerful that people often don’t seek or get the help they need.
- Denial: “It’s a bad habit, but I’m not addicted. I’ll quit someday.”
- Shame: “I’m a Christian. How am I addicted to this? I must not be godly.”
- Embarrassment: “I can’t tell my wife about this; it’s like I have no self-control!”
- Fear: “People are so judgmental. Everything I have will go up in smoke if this comes out.”
- Depression: “I’m just not strong enough. There’s no hope to beating this.”
- Reinforcement: “It feels too good to stop.”
Even with the insidious nature of addiction and the many barriers to confronting it, many have said, “Enough is enough!” Coming to this point—accepting that we have a problem and wanting to change—is an enormous step in the right direction.
The next step should be to the Creator of the human brain.
Start with the spiritual
Addiction treatment centers and programs often focus on the need to involve a higher power. There is something so empowering and helpful in realizing that we need not be alone in the fight against something as strong as addiction.
Christ became the perfect example to all those tempted, since He suffered through temptation and came through it without sin.We can go to the God for whom nothing is too hard (Jeremiah 32:27; Luke 1:37). He is eager to help us when we turn to Him.
So, we start off with the spiritual. We repent of our offense against God. We have put a harmful substance or sinful behavior before Him and before the well-being of someone He loves (us).
We repent of our addiction’s offense against our loved ones: the broken trust, the deception, the infidelity, etc.
We pray for the God who created the brain to help heal what we’ve allowed our brain to become.
We ask for and learn about receiving the power of God, the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 3:16), for the strength to combat “the waves” of compulsion.
We study the powerful, living Word of God (Hebrews 4:12) to understand why God hates things like addictions, which ruin people’s lives, and how to use His power to overcome them.
This is only the beginning. If we let Him, God will lead us further on the road to recovery.
Find a loving accountability partner
Too often people leave the battle against addiction up to just “me and God.” God, however, does not force us to do things. He allows us to mess up, backslide, relapse and make poor decisions. One of those poor decisions would be to not involve other human beings in our struggles.
Christians are to be so loving and helpful to one another that they can openly confess to each other their shortcomings and pray for one another (James 5:16). Due to the inherent risk of stigma in letting another human being know the thing we ourselves are most ashamed of, limiting the number of others who know of our addictions is natural.
But when we’re battling powerful, destructive addictions, we need someone who knows and is on our side. God often works with us through interactions with other human beings.
These people are often called accountability partners, or sponsors. This person is someone who is loving, compassionate, merciful and humble enough to be trusted with such a heavy secret. Choose someone who will not add to the problem.
An accountability partner can be a spouse, minister, very close friend, family member or professional counselor. (Note that some addictions are medically dangerous and require professional intervention. In such cases, it is important to seek professional help in addition to having an accountability partner.)
Before asking someone to help us in this very personal and private capacity, it is important to know their “fruits” (Matthew 7:16). No one is perfect, including Christians. But people who are unable to keep a confidence, very critical of others, unable to empathize with others’ situations, and who never seem to bring up any of their own faults are definitely not suited to be accountability partners.
People who listen more than they talk, attempt to understand and empathize with others’ experiences, and are not shy in talking about their faults are rare but do exist. They are the accountability partners who will actually help rather than hurt the situation, especially when discussing a relapse.
They provide a second conscience to encourage us to do the right thing, and they can be our help when we are too weak. They destroy the secrecy and isolation of addiction and help us get through failure. They are human beings God is working through to get us through the storm.
Set up supports
With the help of your accountability partner, you can now set up supports to combat the deception and alluring aspects associated with addiction. Here are some general ideas:
- Mobilize familiar scriptures to repeat aloud when “the wave” nears.
- Talk aloud to addiction, personifying it as something we can literally hate.
- Write down successes and relapses, including trigger situations and strategies that worked.
- Discuss healthy habits that can replace the addiction.
For specific addictions, the accountability partner needs to be directly involved with supports, such as:
Pornography: Have your accountability partner set up the necessary online filters that are password-protected and monitored by him or her. Designate times when relapse is more likely as check-in times on the phone or by text. Have daily check-ins.
Smoking or drinking: Map out routes with your accountability partner that help you avoid familiar places that sell the substance. Share social calendars and favorite hiding spots with your partner.
Gambling and online games: Give your accountability partner access to monitor your online activity through software or check-ins with your accounts or browser history.
Dealing with relapse
Relapse, especially within the first few months of attempting to kick an addiction, is as inevitable as it is frustrating. An addiction 10 years in the making rarely goes quietly into the night. It goes kicking and screaming, making life as miserable as possible. Just imagine the brain itself thinking: “What? We are not doing that thing that gives me instant pleasure anymore? We’ll see about that!”
This is when loving accountability partners are really helpful. They can help us through the failures and keep us going in the right direction. It is our responsibility to repent of any relapses and to work with God and our partners to do better in the future. God remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:14), but He also knows that the righteous don’t stay down. They get back up, every time (Proverbs 24:16).
Replacing the physical with the spiritual
We are a habit-driven species. When we are trying to kick addiction, something has to fill the giant hole of fake pleasure that will now be missing in our lives.
We need to rebuild the natural pleasures, which include loving connections with others and a deep relationship with our Creator.
Most importantly, those recovering from addiction should develop a new habit of assisting others as they have been assisted. Giving back brings something good out of something awful; it allows our sufferings as addicts to not be in vain.
Christ became the perfect example to all those tempted, since He suffered through temptation and came through it without sin (Hebrews 2:18), fully able to sympathize with our temptations (Hebrews 4:15). Though Christ is uniquely able to sympathize with every sin, we are in a much smaller way able to sympathize with others in the depths of addiction despair. We can exemplify to them: “It can get better. It doesn’t have to always be like this.”
This is how to deal with addiction
Break free: Admit that you have a problem, break through the barriers to getting help, go to God, enlist a human teammate, set up lasting supports and continually replace the physical with the spiritual.
It can be done, so put addiction on notice: It isn’t welcome anymore. Read more about overcoming specific addictions in our online series “Freedom From Addiction.”
Sidebar: Accountability Partners’ Responses to Relapse
For any of us humbled and blessed enough to have the honor of serving another human being in such a powerful way as being an accountability partner, our response to a relapse is critical. It is a delicate balance between coming on too strong and demonstrating condemnation, or seeming too tolerant of sin and keeping the status quo.
The following examples may help us when that very awkward conversation comes along.
Harmful: “Not again! I don’t understand how you let this keep happening!” (Sounds self-righteous.)
Helpful: “I’m sorry, my friend. I can’t imagine how frustrating that is for you.” (Expressing empathy.)
Harmful: “What happened this time?” (Impatience.)
Helpful: “Was it one of the familiar triggers we talked about, or was it something new that you haven’t experienced yet?” (Genuine concern.)
Harmful: “You’ve gotta stop doing this!” (They know this, and they already hate that they do it.)
Helpful: “Try not to get down; God knows you’re trying.” (Encouragement.)
Harmful: “Here’s what you are going to do. …” (Dictatorship.)
Helpful: “Do you think we need to change or update any filters or supports we put in place? Why or why not?” (Partnership.)
Harmful: “Try harder! I don’t want to hear about you messing up again.” (Unforgiving and unrealistic.)
Helpful: “I’m here for you whenever you need me. Don’t quit!” (Moving toward perfection.)