IS IT A BAD HABIT, SIN, DISEASE, OR ADDICTION? 

At most big family gatherings, there will be an alcoholic, a nicotine user, or a drug abuser present. The table likely plays host as well to a few non-chemical bad habits that also threaten the family. Nearly every family has folks who have an eating, work, video game, pornography, sex, gambling, hoarding, or spending disorder. Some may also have abusive or violent tempers, infidelity or love addiction, or online screen addictions to their electronic devices.

As damaging as all these chemical and behavioral addictions are, they don’t mess a family up nearly as much as their strongly different views of the addictive behavior. When the house is divided by different narrow-minded solutions, the addict can divide and conquer, and the addiction has free reign. When the family agrees on the causes and cures, they can all grow stronger with each relapsing misbehavior of the addict. Let’s look at six different views one could take about what is wrong and what is needed.

The first view is usually the first approach loved ones take: denial. They look the other way and pretend nothing is really wrong. He just had a rough night. She’s a victim of circumstances. It’s just a phase he’ll outgrow someday. At least she’s not pregnant, and she’s still in school. He’s still got a job. This is the view addicts take of their own misdeeds, and they are good at charming others into agreeing with them. The problem is that this view and this behavior almost always fuel the addiction, and help the addict slide further into gradually more outrageous misbehavior.

Don’t be in denial. A behavior is an addiction if it does most of the following: it hurts people, wastes time and money, becomes an obsession, produces sudden shifts in mood, takes more and more to satisfy over time, and defies the addict’s efforts to quit entirely, or even to set and keep her behavior within limits for a given episode. Most forms of love, encouragement, and support given to an addict just serve to feed his addiction, not his recovery, and this naïve way of loving is called enabling. (If you don’t know how to tell the difference between this and healthy love, ask me for my article on “How Loved Ones Enable Addicts.”)

A second view is that addicts have personal problems they need to solve. Maybe the problem is emotional, mental, or relational, but whatever, they should get better with counseling, because it’s just a bad habit. This is the view of my profession, but our cure rate for addicts who do psychotherapy alone is embarrassingly low.

A third approach is the self- help movement. Its gurus are celebrities with books, CD’s, DVDs, and seminars. Each one has new angles to sell, and new stories to tell. This method is by far the most popular one to combat over-eating. This approach’s Achilles heel is also its curb appeal, that it requires no submission to help from a professional, institution, or organization. Like a good American, you get yourself over your own addiction. The benefits of these cures do not usually hold up well over time.

A fourth view is the medical model: addicts have a disease. They need medicine and the structured environments of first a hospital, and then usually an intensive outpatient treatment program. Doctors and hospital staff bring healing through medicines that reduce the cravings, and treatment programs that are mostly educational. Addictions are like diseases in that they make us sick and can kill us, but they are not diseases. The disease model can excuse addicts by allowing them to blame relapses on a faulty diagnosis or treatment plan. The disease model may hold addicts somewhat responsible for their recovery and compliance with the treatment plan. But it cannot hold them accountable for the selfish and deceitful behavior that invited and grew the addiction, for the effects their behavior has had on others, or for their relapses back into addictive behavior.

A fifth approach comes from religion: addicts are lost children, and like all sinners, they need to give their lives over to God. The medicines they need are prayer, Bible study, worship, forgiveness, and good morals. The healing institution is the church, and its pastors are its healers. The Bible’s favorite models of sin are idolatry, adultery (cheating on God), and foolishness. These metaphors do show how the sin of addictive behavior betrays God, the one-flesh life partner of a spouse, and the addict’s own holistic health and wellbeing. But if the addict’s church is close-minded, if his God is too small and cannot be embodied in other fellowships and traditions, if her faith is too small and immature to use the other four approaches, when life turns up the pressure down the road, my training, research and experience all agree that relapse to the old habit or to a new addiction is likely.

The best approach is twelve-step recovery. It holds the addict fully responsible for his recovery. It educates and heals both her spirit and her flesh (the ego-kingdom, old nature, heart, brain, natural instincts). Going both to church and recovery groups gives both advanced prevention and on-the-spot cure. 12-step recovery is the most effective approach for overcoming denial, and it is the most friendly to all the other views, encouraging the addict to get counseling, education, religion, and when needed, medication that isn’t addictive. Research has shown 12-stepping alone to be clearly the most effective of the five approaches at producing long-term abstinence, bringing serenity, and avoiding new addictions to replace the old one. It is even more effective when it includes the other four approaches, and back to the family, when they also are working a 12-step model for their own recovery from the traumas, losses, and betrayals they have experienced from the addict’s behavior. Elsewhere, I have outlined how to work a good program, and how to tell if a loved one seems to be doing it right (ask me for “How to Work a Good 12-step Program”).

Like religion’s teaching about sin, recovery teaches that addiction is a progressive and fatal disease, and that whatever you put before your recovery you will lose. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that recovery is free, and it will absolutely make everything else in your life go better than you ever could have imagined. When you are delivered from denial of your character flaws and bondage to your bad habits, you are delivered from the fear that anyone can ever again take your sobriety and your serenity away from you. When your higher power is the author of freedom, you have at last found the one healthy dependency.

 

With any addiction to chemicals or to a habit, loved ones trying to help addicts need to realize and continually remind themselves of three things:  “I didn’t cause the addiction, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it either.”  But you can make it easier for addicts to keep their addiction going.  How?  The counterproductive efforts people make to help and reform their addicted loved ones are called enabling behaviors.  Those who do them are calledcodependents, because these behaviors make them just as dependent or hooked on helping the addict as the addicts are hooked on their addictions.   This over-protection and over-indulgence just stimulates the shame and irresponsibility that fuel the addict’s habit.   

How come most efforts to reform addicts work in reverse?

Because addictions work on people like hypnosis does.  I have studied and seen how skilled hypnotists can hypnotize virtually anyone, especially people trying the hardest to resist.  Their secret is that they know how to make your efforts to resist hypnosis work in reverse to stimulate the trance. Hypnotists wear out those who resist them, by getting them to push against themselves to the point of exhaustion. Those trying to resist hypnosis surrender to the trance in any manner much like addicts slipping into their mindless habit.  So when loved ones try to straighten out addicts, this enables even more addictive behavior, excuses and cover-ups, which wears the loved ones out to the point of exhaustion and surrender.  And like hypnosis, this all works out under the cover of denial, subconsciously, with loved ones thinking they’re helping when they’re actually playing right into the hands of the addiction.

Here are twelve of the most common enabling behaviors to avoid:

So what does work to help loved ones recover from an addiction?

Tell the truth.  Say that their addictions, excuses, and lies disgust you, and make you want to leave them alone.  Tell others the truth about the addict too—stop covering up for them.

Withhold whatever they abuse.  Take away the money, housing, vehicles, jobs, privileges, responsibilities, and loved ones you can’t trust them with. They all fuel the addiction anyway.

Show love by giving only your self to the addict, not the things in the previous paragraph. You talk on the phone or meet them for a meal, but you don't hang out for long. If they have stolen, meet in a restaurant, not in your home.

Ask about their recovery, what they are learning, what responsible things they are doing.  

Discipline lies with doubt.  “I would like to believe you, but you know you have lied about this kind of thing before. Time will tell. Actions speak louder than words.”

In the Later Stages 

Leave them alone.  Stop paying attention to them.  Don’t spend time with them.  Don’t let them see that they tick you off, just that they turn you off.  If necessary, kick them out or separate from them.  This may require that you "get a life," or at least live a life full enough for you to let go of the addict.

Take better care of yourself.  Most enablers don’t know how, or don’t care enough about themselves to do it. Those who do care would benefit from counseling.

Join a support groupa recovering community of friends and family.  Sharing your "experience, strength, and hope" with others in your situation will give you the strength you can't find elsewhere, and can't do without. This happens in the 12-step program for enablers, Al-Anon (www.al-anon.alateen.org).

Conduct an intervention.  When you’re tired of doing everything else, you might do well to gather loved ones and let a professional teach you whether and how to present an offer the addict can’t afford to refuse.  For details on this and other suggestions for codependents, see www.interventioninfo.org/research/family.php.   From what I know, the best local treatment available for addicts is at the nationally acclaimed Healing Place, in Louisville.

How parents can discuss these things with teens

            When I was a teenager, and especially when I left home for college, I had trouble refraining from certain things just because I was told not to do them.  Even if I saw it in the Bible written as something not to do, in order to avoid it, I needed to know why it was harmful for me.  This was especially true when it came to matters that produced a lot of pleasure, such as anything having to do with love or sex.  Masturbating and playing genital show and tell with other boys and girls were two of those things for me.  Today exploring the Internet for pictures, videos, contacts, and information about sex and gender would require many answers to my questions of “why not?”  I made it a habit to ask God and my parents to explain to me why I should not to do such things.  And I asked them to show me what I should do with these feelings and drives of mine, what would be good for me and others in my life, and why it would work out better that way. 

In our lifetimes, we experience various desires to give and receive love, to give and receive sex, and to express and attract gender.  The issue of gender includes gender identity (who I say I am), gender expression (how masculine or feminine I act), and gender orientation (who I say I’m attracted to).  How young people define themselves on these matters makes a huge personal impact on their lives, and on the lives of their friends and family.  Young people with unusual self-definitions on these matters are hit with pressures to conform to the values and beliefs of other people in their lives, especially parents and peers.  

Sometimes values clash in love, such as fun vs. fidelity, freedom vs. connection, kindness vs. honesty, partnership vs. dependency, family vs. friends, pure vs. profane or dirty, trusting vs. ignoring God, suppressing feelings vs. expressing them.  These values and beliefs are often presented as realities, each with its own claims for how it affects the health and wellness of those who try to live by these values and beliefs.

            Especially important to us and to society are values and beliefs about health and wellness.  Health has been defined as maximizing the capacity for enjoying life, and minimizing harm to that capacity, both in self and others, both now and in the long run.   By this definition, it is not healthy to take power or self-worth from others in order to benefit oneself.  Expressions of love, sex, and gender always have an impact on power and self-worth for those involved, and therefore all such expressions affect people’s health.

            Being a social scientist, I have spent a lifetime studying research on what works to produce healthy people and relationships.  And as a therapist, I have observed many different worldviews, and many different realities that color and direct our expressions of love, sex, and gender.  I have watched how people’s expressions have turned out over the course of their lifetimes, and over the lifetimes of their family members and romantic partners, the people most affected by these very personal expressions.  All these long-range scientific studies, both of large groups and of individual cases, have brought me to the same conclusions about what works and what doesn’t work to produce healthy lives.

            Not at all sources of truth, power, and self-worth are equally healthy.  International research I have conducted, the research I have reviewed, and my case-studies of the 7000 individuals I have counseled have all convinced me there is a hierarchy of health in these worldviews.  The following is a rank-ordered hierarchy for the healthiness of various possible worldviews and sources of truth:

  1. Spiritual/biblical truth – the traditional moral values and worldviews that have historically been considered good and true for all religions in the Western world.  I personally believe Jesus’ claim to be the complete embodiment of truth, the duly constituted and authorized spokesperson for the Truth.  But all three of the major Western religions came through Abraham, and all three have similar rules for living that support family values and being kind and honest with all people.
  2. Physical/natural/scientific truth – what scientists have proven and agreed makes for healthy individuals, relationships, and societies.
  3. Socially determined truth – what professional journalists have determined to be true, what higher courts have determined to be lawful, and what elected officials have historically determined to be for the common good.
  4. One’s parents’ reality – the set of moral values and beliefs parents have given their children in hopes their offspring will grow up to choose lifestyles similar to their own.
  5. One’s own mental reality – what agrees with one’s logic in bringing him or her mental clarity and integrity, and fits one’s plans for personal fulfillment.
  6. One’s own emotional reality – what agrees with one’s gut-level instincts and intuition in bringing him or her positive emotional experiences.
  7. Gay-bashing or gay-entitlement reality – the worldviews about love, sex, and gender promoted by elements of the political left and the religious right, who say that people in the LGBTQ community (gays and people choosing other alternative sexual lifestyles) deserve special treatment, good or bad.  The political right wing believes it has been proven that sexual preference is not inherited, and the left wing believes the opposite, that sexual preference being inherited is a proven fact.  The left wing believes it’s not healthy for single people to be celibate and go very long without sexual “outlets,” and the right wing believes the same to be true for married adults.  Increasingly in our society, one is hammered for being neutral and waiting for more conclusive scientific proof for these conflicting, extreme, and polarizing views.
  8. Image-management reality – the trendy desires and profit-driven worldviews created by the advertising industry, movie industry, music industry, industry-sponsored “research”, political ads, fake news, religious cults, and special interest groups, especially as expressed in social media and dating apps.
  9. Virtual reality – custom-ordered and market-driven experiences sold to the consumer as augmented or virtual reality, such as video games, sexual robotics, and especially the porn industry.  Operating untethered and undetected through international servers using the dark web, the porn industry makes more money than the combined incomes of all professional sports in the world.  They pay the highest wages to technology’s most gifted designers, hiring them to seduce unsuspecting new users into becoming sex addicts they can exploit until they are bankrupt.

The first three truths generally are stable over the centuries of history, and they help individuals live in society.  In spite of some unhealthy pastors, churches, and believers, religious truth is ranked above the others because of its higher regard for love, respect, joy, peace, and what is good for people, families, and the planet.  The Bible itself is healthier than those who use it to judge others and not themselves, so we need to read it for ourselves. 

            The second two worldviews are more often than the first used to accomplish political or economic agendas.  When scientific experiments are constructed objectively, and when political laws and rulings are made with the best interest of society and the larger world at heart, they substantially confirm the values and beliefs of religion, just as the Bible says God called them to do.

Truth sources 2 and 3 are helpful in that unlike with religion, the “truth” that science and society discover can be objectively proved by group consensus and professional review.  These three worldviews often agree with and cross-validate each other, and taken together, they often clash violently with the self-pleasuring and self-protecting values of the last three red realities.  All this makes the first three stable and helpful sources of knowledge about what is good for all concerned in the long run

            Realities four through six are subjective, created by individuals for their own benefit.  The net effect on society of guidance from these sources tends to be small and neutral.  Unless they are lined up with larger realities such as the first three or the last three, they don’t do much good or harm.  When they align with the top three truth sources, they have great power to create healthy lifestyles, careers, marriages, and children.

            The last three realities are by nature recent, exploitive, deceptive, and untested regarding their effects on the future lives of those who adhere to them.  They are designed to add power and self-worth to some segments of society at the expense of others.  Therefore they usually leave society in a more divided and less healthy state.  They typically prey on the sentimentality of others:  they invoke creatively twisted “truths” from the first three sources.  They often exploit nostalgia by misrepresenting things which people experienced in their youth, or which society experienced decades or centuries ago.  Another key distortion is selling bondage and addiction as freedom.  All this appeals greatly to hurting people who are seeking new worldviews because their sense of heritage has become vague, lost, or harmful.

            This long philosophical introduction is given to help people evaluate the sources of their truth.  This will allow them to determine healthier values and beliefs when it comes to love, sex, and gender.  Most teens nowadays masturbate to fantasies, pictures, and movies about people they allow themselves to enjoy dreaming about.  Who they choose to dream about this way as teens affects who they will want to date, which then affects who they’ll fall in love with, which then affects who they’ll marry and grow old with. 

The more they allow themselves to be pleasured by fantasies or physical stimulation while looking at or imagining this or that gender, the more they find they want more of the same.    It works the same way for pleasuring themselves with this or that age or race, behavior or personality type.  Just like Pavlov trained his dogs, they are training themselves to be attracted to this or that type of person.  They are shaping their sexual and romantic “arousal templates” as we call them.  This process of shaping desire has been thoroughly proven in many studies, but not so the theory that we are born with our attractions preset toward this or that gender.  This theory comes from realities 6 through 9, and it contradicts the findings of truth sources 1, 2, and 3.

Teens who are naïve, proud or misled might think they can get off to the sight or thought of one type of person, and then somehow, someday, flip a switch so they will start wanting to date or marry another type of person.  It doesn’t work that way.  Before they spend more years betting they can do that, they need to know several things about changing the direction of desire: 

            Seen through this lens of what is healthy, I offer the following general observations to help people decide how they will express their love, sex, and gender to each other.  Here are some beliefs about healthy Love, Sex, and Gender (LSG) which young people don’t often believe to be true, but which most of them will realize as true when they are a generation older:

  1. Like money, anger, and nuclear energy, sexual energy/desire is not good or bad – its effect depends on what you use it for.
  2. The healthiest choices for singles save some sex acts to celebrate the achievement of relational fidelity, and to create families.
  3. Compared to promiscuity and cheating, fidelity and monogamy lead to more honest, stable, loving, healthy lives.
  4. Using sex for mutual fun and pleasure benefits only two people, and only in the short run.
  5. Using sex for power, domination, and one person’s greater pleasure is very unhealthy.
  6. Opposites attract throughout nature, adding energy, creativity, strength, and inspiration.
  7. Attraction to people similar to ourselves will fade into attraction to the new and different.
  8. In mate selection, choosing people with different gifts, interests, skills, and temperament is more difficult at first, and more beneficial as time goes on.
  9. Choosing people with similar values and beliefs enable the couple to partner better in working toward common goals.

By the definitions of health given above, it is healthy to avoid certain things:

Here are questions to ask your son or daughter to draw them out and make them think:

  1. Read [this] paragraph slowly until you understand it.  Ask questions if you don’t….   What does this paragraph say, in your words?   . . . . .
  2. What do you read here that you do not agree with?   Why?
  3. What do you believe about this?    Why?
  4. Do you still think it’s a good idea?
  5. If you act your beliefs out someday, how do you think it will help people right away?              In the long run?  . . . .  How will it hurt people now?   
  6. What about [other people, other effects]?

      Finally, I give these ideas to young people and their parents, in hopes they will lead to relaxed and open discussions of what is healthy, what will work out best for all concerned in the long run, and why.  This will in turn allow the family to feel close to each other, but not too close, and comfortable with each other, but not too comfortable.  In short, the family will be able to grow and take in new members that are different but compatible.

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach in Louisville and Shelbyville, (502) 633-2860, mynewlife.com.

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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt