I'm an Addict. So are You.

In our addiction to sin, we can learn a lot from the 12 Steps. And from the
2002-01-15

I've concluded that, in one way or another, we're all addicts.

As a part of my ongoing effort to better understand what drives people to do what they do, I'm reading a book on addiction. (The Addictive Personality, by Craig Nakken, for the curious among you.) It's an excellent book. Interestingly enough, I'm seeing some amazing parallels between addicts and the rest of us. That isn't to say that we all have addictive personalities, but simply that we can all learn something from watching the process of addiction and recovery.

Nakken says that certain people - because of their family background and/or childhood experiences -- are more prone to develop addictions than other people. These people go through life with what he calls an addictive personality, which hinders their ability to find fulfillment, whether or not they actually develop specific addictions. The addictive personality is defined by the constant pursuit of pleasurable sensations, and the constant avoidance of pain. Addictive personalities just want to feel good right now. So they constantly turn to whatever it is that makes them feel good (alcohol, food, sex, gambling, TV, work, etc.) as a way to distract themselves from problems. They ignore the problems, hoping they'll go away. Of course they don't. And, to make matters worse, their behavior generally leads to a whole new set of problems, which leads to a whole new round of avoidance. And so it goes. Of course, eventually, the addictive personality loses the confidence that he has the ability to face and conquer problems. And so he resorts to still more avoidance behavior.

Obviously, the addictive personality has a difficult time sustaining relationships. We were created to find real meaning and real fulfillment through joining our lives to the lives of others. But human relationships, by their very nature, involve struggle. And addicts, preferring the immediate pleasurable sensation, tend to hide from relationships. And, in doing so, they cut themselves off from their own lifeblood.

The problem the addictive personality faces is that real fulfillment is never found in pleasurable sensations. Life sends us certain problems and challenges, and real fulfillment in this life is found through facing those challenges. We grow through meeting and overcoming obstacles. That's how we gain confidence. That's how we sustain relationships. That's how we find real joy.

As I said, the addictive personality often had the deck stacked against him from the start. Abuse, instability or inconsistency in a child's family life can cause a strong tendency to withdraw. That tendency isn't easily overcome. The answer isn't merely to abstain from that substance - the booze or the drugs or the TV or whatever. That does nothing to address the underlying tendencies. The addictive personality remains.

The answer comes in the group - in relationship. This was the brilliant insight of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. The addictive personality tends to thrive in isolation. It is broken in opening our lives to others - both human and Divine. In the 12 steps of AA, the addict acknowledges to the group that he is an addict, that he is powerless over his own behavior, and that only in turning his life over to a Higher Power will he succeed in breaking free of his isolation. He continues to share his life and his struggles with the group. The group loves and accepts him. And, most importantly, the group holds him accountable.

Why this long dissertation on the addictive personality? Because I was struck by some parallels. As I said, before, I don't believe that everyone has an addictive personality, per se. But we all suffer from a condition called Original Sin, and we can learn a lot by studying the struggle of the addict.

What is sin? By definition, it is a failure to love, a failure to respect the image and likeness of God in ourselves and/or others. So why do we do it? We sin because it feels good, right here and now. Never mind the damage. We're not thinking about the future, or the problems the future will hold because of this sin. We just want to feel good right now. And, since sin is a failure to love, it damages relationships. Sin isolates. It leaves us alone, not connected. So we try to quit sinning, relying on our own willpower. And we fail miserably.

So how do we overcome sin? Through our "Higher Power" - Jesus Christ. We turn our lives over to Him. But we don't do it alone. We turn ourselves over to Him as part of the Body of Christ. We go to our "group" meeting, the Mass. The addict says, "I'm Bill X, and I'm an alcoholic." We say, "I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault." Our power comes from Him, and we go to Him in our brokenness. We receive Him, body, blood, soul and divinity, into our very selves. He transforms us. And we stick together - to love each other, to pray for each other, to hold each other accountable.

I doubt that AA deliberately based its structure on the Mass. And I know we didn't get the idea of the Mass from AA. But it just goes to show - human nature is human nature, and we have certain needs. In order to overcome our brokenness and become our best selves, we need God. And we need each other.

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