Beyond Alcoholism: Other Addictions

By Albert S. Rossi, PhD

In our society, among our own family members and friends, including in the Orthodox Church, addiction to alcohol has been prevalent for decades.  Today, its severity has diminished and is being replaced by other, more insidious addictions.  Among the new crop plaguing us include an addiction to stress, Internet pornography, and overeating.  Perhaps an addiction to stress is not new but certainly a severe temptation in our multitasking culture.

Beyond these addictions, there are a host of other addictions.  These include gambling, credit card debt, shopping, religion, viewing extreme sports, addicted to another person called codependency, excessive Internet surfing and time spent on electronic devices.  Drugs are a totally different topic.

Addiction Defined

What is addiction?  We might say that an addiction is a physiological/psychological need to continue to use a substance, behavior, or activity after it is no longer useful or healthy to continue.  So, an addiction is destructive.

Addiction takes us, briefly or not, out of reality.  Addiction provides a temporary respite from life’s challenges and the emotional pain of life.  All addictions change brain chemistry, increasing the activity in the pleasure centers of the brain.  So, addictions increase a flood of pleasure-producing neurotransmitters, some addictions more than others.

There is difference between an addiction to escape reality and legitimate leisure to leave the usual reality scene for a while.  By their fruits you will know them. Addictions are not life sustaining.  By contrast, after a family vacation in the mountains with time to sleep in, read a book and spend time with each other, the person returns nourished.  After an addictive binge, food or sex or whatever, the person feels dark and glutted.

Addictions render a person alone and powerless to stop the behaviors.  Lenten resolutions, New Year’s resolutions don’t work.  In general, as recommended by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, the various 12 Step programs hold a promising solution to most addictions.  As yet, there are no 12 Step programs, as far as I know, dedicated to overcoming stress addiction.

Mental Blocks to Recognizing Addiction

Addiction recovery

The primary block to owning one’s addictive behavior is denial, or diminishment of the consequences of the behaviors.  Denial is a defense mechanism in which the person sincerely believes that he or she is not addicted.  Denial is blindness to our blindness.  We simply cannot see our own dysfunctional ways.

I am a recovering alcoholic who has attended Alcoholics Anonymous for more than twenty years.  For years before going to AA I was in denial about my alcoholism.  One evening at a party for the faculty of the psychology department at Pace University where I taught, I intended to have three glasses of wine.  As the evening wore on I didn’t count how many glasses I had.  When I was preparing to leave, Richard, the department chair, helped put on my coat.  He said, “Al, you are a good professor and we want to keep you in the department.  Please drive home carefully.”  I graciously thanked him.  As soon as I got outside I became furious.  He saw through me.  Although I didn’t think I had too much to drink, he did and he said so, careful of his words.  I was in deep denial.  Richard’s comment was the beginning of the end of my denial.

How do we cut into our denial?  First, we pray for the courage to see ourselves clearly.  Second, we admit that we might be addicted to something or other.  Third, we are open to the comments of others about our behaviors.  Of course, not all feedback is valid.

Stress as an Addiction

Is it possible to be addicted to stress?  Of course.  Our culture idolizes the extroverted, multi-tasking, Type A personalities, the persons who are characterized by competitiveness, urgency and hostility.  Therefore, many of us are tempted to have a mindset that inclines towards a Type A personality, an addiction to stress.

I received a couple of emails about stress addiction from priests that I would like to share.  One priest said that he discovered he was addicted to stress by looking at his Monday mornings after preaching the day before.  He said that he found it hard to relax, partly because of the 24/7 demands of pastoring, but also because the adrenal letdown made him anxious, tired, lethargic.  He discovered that he only felt better when he finally ramped up the stress for the upcoming Sunday and started the cycle again, sometimes as early as Monday afternoon.  Even on his vacations, he still had to work to keep the adrenaline flowing.  He wrote, “I was addicted to stress.”

A second priest on the email exchange said “Wow. Have you ever read something that describes you, but you don’t even realize it (denial) was you until you read it? That hit me square between the eyes! I do the same thing - even on some Mondays. Addicted to stress… I need to digest that a bit. Very interesting quote. Thanks for sharing!”

A third priest on the emails said, “Fascinating idea - becoming ‘addicted to stress’. I have often thought to myself that people I know are ‘addicted to drama’. I guess we can become addicted to anything - to take a natural passion and make it into something distorted and ultimately harmful.”

Lay persons are equally susceptible to stress addiction.  A woman whom I counsel sent me a text message that said she had changed in the last couple of years.  She was addicted to stress, which is another way of saying addicted to escape.  Her text was almost visual.  She said, “I am sitting in my same car in the same parking slot.  When I sent the initial text I was feeling ‘hurt and astray.’  You said that if I continue to do the right things, namely pray, be transparent about my feelings and continue counseling that joy would begin to come.  It came.  I am grateful that the stress addiction is lessening.”

Legitimate Work and Stress Addiction

support group

What is the difference between legitimately becoming energized for work and being addicted to stress?  The answer is simple.  The answer is the amount of anxiety associated with the process.  Is there anxiety or not?  Is there peace or is there not?

Focused work in the Lord is accompanied by peace, whether we feel energized or not.  Part of the addiction to stress is the addiction to mental drama, the need for novelty and dissatisfaction with the ordinariness, or the tension, of the present moment.

All addictions produce a dopamine squirt in the brain that needs to be fed over and over, along with increased adrenaline.  In addictions, the absence of the dopamine squirt results in mild, or not so mild, withdrawal symptoms.

The person addicted to stress will create projects, usually good projects, just to feel somewhat overwhelmed, to then get the dopamine infused, and feel anxious about having so much work to do.  In the meantime, some of the work was self-created to generate stress.

Currently, addiction to stress is sometimes referred to as the “tethered-self,” the self that compulsively checks the Smartphone, Facebook, emails and texts, tethered to newness, novelty, and the search for some form of drama.

Internet Pornography Addiction*

Internet pornography is the fastest growing addiction today, by far.  It is a wildfire out of control. 

For those persons who are being burned by the fire of Internet pornography addiction there is hope.  That is the point of this little article. 

For starters, we need to talk about the issues and deal with them forthrightly.  Father John Breck in The Sacred Gift of Life makes a striking point.  He says, “Our threshold of tolerance toward sexual explicitness and exploitation has been lowered dramatically … & …the spiritual and psychological toll exacted by this situation is incalculable.”  In effect, we are numb about what is really going on and rather baffled about what to do about it.

Size of the Problem

Internet pornography makes more money than the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and National Basketball Association combined, a $10 billion industry.  Big business protects itself and aggressively markets its wares.

A vast number of people use Internet pornography and a vast number of people are ashamed of it.  Grand paradox.  For youth, 87% of males and 31% of females say they regularly use Internet pornography.  The operative word is “regularly.”  Our youth seem to be getting their sex education from Internet pornography.

For pastors of all denominations, 37% admit to having a problem with Internet pornography.  Hotels report that for religious conventions, Internet pornography on the TV increases significantly.

Internet pornography is a drug.  The brain responds the same to pornography as it does to cocaine, flooding the brain with dopamine and testosterone. 

Some public and not public figures seem to think that “sexting,” the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photographs primarily between mobile phones, can’t become public knowledge.  Not necessarily true.

Saint Maximos the Confessor says that lust and anger are similar passions.  Is it any wonder that there are so many angry people, especially youth?  Road-rage, aggravated lawsuits and lustful behavior are not necessarily separate issues.

False Objections about the Internet Pornography

There are at least two objections we must confront.  The first objection is that it doesn’t hurt anyone.  “I do it alone.”  This objection claims that viewing Internet pornography is a “victimless crime,” so to speak.  However, many porn stars die before the age of 50, many before 35, from unnatural causes, that is, drugs or suicide.  Every “hit” to a pornography site is counted and contributes to the death of the young persons on the screen.  Not harmless at all.

The other objection is that “It’s not that bad.”  This is a variant of “everybody is doing it” or “boys will be boys.”  Our retort is the words of Jesus.  He said, “If a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Of course, this includes all lustful looking.  In Jesus’ time adultery was punishable by being stoned to death.  So, Internet pornography is deadly.  Once in a while, for example every three months, is not acceptable.

Addiction is a difficult term to define.  For our purposes, an addict is anyone who has a pattern of behaviors that he/she wants to stop but doesn’t.  Given the brain changes for Internet pornography, one definition of addiction would be watching Internet pornography every three months.  Neural pathways become chemically changed quickly.  Spiritually, adultery every three months is unconscionable.

If a person were addicted to alcohol, the counselor or priest would probably try to lead the person to Alcoholics Anonymous, AA.  A person who is addicted to Internet pornography probably needs to be led to Sexaholics Anonymous, SA.  There are many false stereotypes for SA, particularly that members of SA have a history of acting out with other people.  The truth is that many SA members have Internet pornography as their “only” sexual behavior, a behavior they detest but can’t stop.

Some persons can’t, or won’t, go to SA.  What then?  The great enemy of recovery is isolation.  Virtually every addict has a secret life.  So, with Internet pornography, the person needs a system of accountability, a way to get out of the secret life and into a life of honesty and transparency.  The person needs to be regularly open with another human being, both inside and outside confession.  This is a delicate issue.  The persons chosen to be accountability partners need to be trustworthy, usually older, of the same sex, and willing to actively listen without judgment or advice giving.  The person who looks at Internet pornography regularly needs to experience being transparent with other humans without being made to feel shame.

It is no secret that I facilitate a weekly Sexahholics Anonymous phone meeting for Orthodox clergy who are addicted to Internet pornography.  Virtually all the priests are married with no marital problems to speak of.  The phone meeting has been in existence for a few years.  The priests on the phone meeting are hugely grateful to speak with fellow clergy with the same menacing problem.  They humbly break their isolation and share candidly about their thoughts and struggles.

Implications for Pastors

Confession

One implication now becomes loud and clear.  “Revolving door” confession does not help the problem.  Revolving door confession aids and abets the problem.  That approach simply doesn’t work.  We wouldn’t treat a cocaine addict that way.  We wouldn’t say, “Fall down, get up, and keep talking to me.”  Rather, we would want the person to take strong action to stop the addiction, perhaps a 12 Step program.  And, we still want the cocaine addict to have communication with his Father Confessor.

The great enemy is isolation, especially emotional isolation.  This isolation creates inner stress, which creates a need for relief, often a return to the soothing but temporary relief of more pornography.  A downward helix begins.  Isolation brings darkness which brings more acting out which brings more isolation which brings greater darkness.  The solution to isolation is transparency, surrender to Christ and another human, inside and outside of confession.  Confession is a sacrament to cleanse the person and bring new union with Christ.  But, confession can also be used as an easy escape to temporarily relieve guilt and shame, without true repentance and authentic change of behavior.

What Can We Do?

Diagnosis can be easy.  Remedy is much harder.  Internet pornography is readily available on laptops, hand-held game machines, Smartphones, etc. 

There are a few things we can do for starters. 

  • The first is to discuss the issues and become aware of our lassitude toward sexual innuendos, stories, jokes and banter.  We can educate ourselves about the seriousness of lustful thoughts and behaviors.  Men need to be more aware of how such behaviors begin to make them “love cripples.”  Women need to be less tolerant of others who view Internet pornography.  Rather than a benign attitude of acceptance, women need to communicate disgust and revulsion.
  • Parents need to discuss this with their children and have appropriate filters on computers.  There are a variety of programs available.  Some programs also provide filters for phones.  One recommendable program is www.covenanteyes.com.
  • Adults generally, and men particularly, need to consider joining one of the accountability programs to disclose their computer behavior to a trusted accountability partner.  As said above, one program, highly recommended, is www.covenanteyes.com.  The person joins, provides the email address of a trusted friend, and the trusted friend gets a weekly summary of all the Internet activity of the person.  The summary is neatly arranged in categories, beginning with questionable material.  The trusted friend can then email the person and simply ask, “Is there something we can talk about?”  There is a cost for Covenant Eyes.

12 Step Programs

  • All of us, particularly confessors and persons in spiritually responsible positions, need to become more familiar with Sexaholics Anonymous, SA.  Unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, AA, which has some open meetings that non-alcoholics can attend, SA has no open meetings.  SA meetings are only for sex addicts or those who think they might be.  Again, many members have never acted out with another human being.  Their “only” acting out is with Internet pornography.  Confessors and persons in spiritually responsible positions need to have phone numbers of local SA meetings and a working knowledge of the organization so that they can appropriately recommend SA if that is the path that is needed.  The local phone numbers are readily available at www.sa.org.  The phone number for the central office of SA is 615-370-6062.  Also, confessors and persons in spiritually responsible positions can contact those who already know about the program and discuss the implications of referrals. There are many recovery groups for sex addiction including SRA, SAA, and others.  SA is the only group that is consonant with Orthodoxy.  SA does not permit any sexual activity outside a monogamous, heterosexual marriage.  All the other groups allow the member to define his or her own definition, usually allowing masturbation and same-sex activity in a committed relationship.  Therefore, pastor-types can recommend SA but not SAA or SRA or any other similar sex addiction recovery program.
  • I would recommend the book, The Drug of the New Millennium: The Brain Science behind Internet Pornography by Mark B Kastleman. The fire of Internet pornography is not a greater threat than the saving fire of Jesus Christ.  We have tools to cooperate with the Lord’s powerful grace and to combat the horrors of Internet pornography.  We can be pure and we can empower others to purity through our prayer and our healing presence.

Overeating as an Addiction

Obesity means having too much body fat. It is different from being overweight, which means weighing too much. The weight of a person who is overweight may come from muscle, bone, fat, and/or body water. Both terms mean that a person’s weight is greater than what’s considered healthy for his or her height.

At the outset it must be said that some people are obese because of hormonal and biological factors.  OK.  But, it seems that most obese persons are simply addicted to overeating in excess.

The World Health Organization (WHO) predicted that the condition of being overweight or obese might soon replace older public health concerns such as under-nutrition and infectious diseases as the most significant variable in poor health.

Obesity increases a person’s risk of diseases and health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.  Today about 1 in 3 kids are overweight or obese. And studies show that overweight kids are likely to become overweight and obese adults.  The denial of parents, often viewed as rationalization, can fuel child obesity.  Parents sometimes say about an obese child, “My child is about the right weight,” or “All I want is a healthy child,” all-the-while feeding the child junk food. 

Recent research suggests that the two places to begin with obese children are curbing sugary beverages and monitoring children’s viewing of TV advertising.  The research suggests that marketers try to make it normal to eat all the time.  Interestingly, the rate of obesity in children has stabilized, but primarily for children from ages 2 to 5.  Obesity is still increasing for older children.  Obesity in children is considered a national epidemic.  Obviously, limiting sugary drinks and television ads would be a fine beginning for adults as well.

More than 1 in 3 adults are considered to be obese.  Adults often rely on denial to sustain the obesity.  Some adults say, “My health issues could be worse,” or “I know I am obese but that’s the way I am.  It is what it is,” all-the-while eating a second and third dessert.

Most obese persons would admit that they tried multiple diets with little or no lasting success.  Back to basics, overeating is a physical, emotional and spiritual problem.  The primary solution for addictions, according to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, is some 12 Step program, in the case of obesity, Overeaters Anonymous, OA. 

It might be helpful for an obese person to read the book, Steps of Transformation by Archimandrite Meletios Webber. Although primarily written about alcoholism, it is easy to substitute the word “overeating” for alcohol.

Obese persons know that dieting, self-directed efforts simply don’t work.  Overeaters, and all addicts, are powerless over the addiction.  Grand paradox.  The bible says, “when I am weak then I am strong” (2Cor12:10).  The 12 Step programs say that when I admit my powerlessness, then I am in position to truly turn my life and my will over to God as I understand Him.  And in my powerlessness is my strength.

I have a 23 year chip in my pocket for sobriety from alcohol.  I still go to two meetings a week.  Why?  AA is not primarily about not drinking.  AA is primarily about overcoming the character defects that prompted the drinking, namely fear, pride and resentment.  All the 12 Step programs are about allowing God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.  Does OA work?  In a word, yes, for those who want to work the program.  I personally know many persons who have lasting weight loss through OA.

Conclusion

Addiction Recovery

The solution for any addiction is the pursuit of Christ through stillness, the diminishment of denial as explained above, and complete transparency with at least one other human, inside and outside confession.  The complete transparency can be spread over a few trusted humans.  And, as has been highlighted, perhaps joining one of the 12 Step programs.

Christ is everything and we find Him in reality, not in escaping reality as it is.

* * *

* The material on Internet pornography is adapted from an article that I wrote for PRAXIS, the education journal of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 
* Some material on the other topics came from various Internet sources.