Addiction: Choice or Disease?

The destructive world of addictions touches almost everyone. Whether you’ve personally struggled with an addiction or you love someone who has, you are almost certainly emotionally involved with addictions. Friends struggle to find a way to approach an addict’s battle in the most nonjudgmental, healing way possible. Addicts fight to find the root of their problem. But no matter how addiction has impacted you, you know the discussion of addictions matters.

When I was eleven, I descended into a long fight with bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder. As I reached out for recovery years later, I was faced with two interpretations of my addiction. One claimed that my eating disorder was a disease, the other that it was a choice.

Addictions are all consuming. Though part of you longs to be a whole, healthy person again, you feel powerless to change. You become a slave to your cravings. So the disease interpretation wasn’t just comforting, it seemed true. It said I had a choice to start that first diet, but I didn’t choose to be addicted to hunger, to weight loss, or to food. I had been infected by my circumstances, and now my disorder was attacking me from the inside like a virus, injecting disease into healthy thoughts and multiplying.

The choice interpretation does acknowledge a corrupting disease, but that disease is not alcoholism or anorexia: it’s sin. The blame is shifted from outside factors to the addict. I was called to take ownership of my choices and repent.

I had to choose, because each interpretation had a different path to healing, and only one could lead to freedom. As I examined both options, I discovered that the truth was clear: addiction is a choice, not a disease. Factors like a disordered brain can influence an addict’s choices, but they can’t make choices for him. The consequences of sin impact the brain and the rest of the body, but those are only the results of the problem, not the problem itself.

The disease model of addictions blames physiology, childhood, abuse, and a myriad of other factors as if they have the power to infect a person with addiction. Calling an addiction a disease sounds attractive, because you’re off the hook. You’re just a puppet tied to a kite, flopping and leaping wherever the wind tugs. Popular psychology prescribes that you cut your puppet strings and step free of the factors that made you an addict, but puppets with cut strings aren’t very lively. You lie on the grass, wooden, and after you muster all your self-esteem, still wooden. If a person is powerless to choose evil, a person is powerless to choose good.

There is no logical option for full recovery within the disease model. The addict can change her circumstances. She can take medication to fill the holes in her circuitry. But as soon as bad things happen, or as soon as her medication falls short, she spirals back into addiction. We can’t blame her for it; her disease has just flared up again like a stubborn cancer. The recovered addict is forced to live in constant fear of relapse.

Outside factors can only influence choices, not make them. Because the addict chooses to engage in their addiction, they are not suffering from a disease, but choosing to sin.

“[An addiction] is something we do rather than catch.”

-Edward T. Welch

Within addiction you do become a puppet controlled by your appetites, you are powerless to choose good – but through the recognition of sin comes the possibility for repentance. And through repentance God breathes life into wood, transforming the addict into His free, alive child.

What about the brain?

 “At its core, addiction isn’t just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It’s a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas…The disease is about brains, not drugs.”

–  Dr. Michael Miller, past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine

If our choices are merely the products of our brains, where the reward circuits dictate whether or not we fall in love, go to work, or eat a chicken sandwich, the addict is the logical one. They opt out of the complicated networks of choices that may or may not lead to brain-satisfying results and hack into their brain’s pleasure system. If we are our brains, non-addicts are equally enslaved to pleasure-releasing behavior as an addict. The non-addict just chooses more socially acceptable means.

The addict really lives the life the neuroscientist thinks we are by nature born to endure.

– Alva Noë, professor of philosophy at Berkeley

As soon as you isolate the brain as the only factor, you destroy what makes life fruitful and beautiful. To choose, to love, to worship, or to fellowship becomes a function of chemistry rather than an outflow of the heart. And addiction is no longer a disease, but a logical evasion of the brain game. But this is not true. Addictions are created from the involvement of the whole person, through your brain, your history, your emotions, and most of all, your worship.

When you look an an addict, do not do him the injustice of seeing merely an abusive childhood or misfiring synapses. An addict is a multi-faceted human being with a shattered soul, struggling against the flesh, thirsting for escape, and hungering for wholeness. Addicts are sinners. But they are sinners with a chance for full redemption.

This is the greatest comfort you can give an addict, not blamelessness. The freedom of accepting addiction as a sin is overwhelming. Instead of living in fear of outside events or brain malfunctions triggering a relapse, the addict is secure in repentance. Instead of trading one brain game for another, he has the potential to be renewed from the inside out. He is not only recovered, he is redeemed.

3 Ways to Quit the Self-Esteem Game

 

1. Stop monitoring your “self-care.” Sure, it’s wonderful to take a cinnamon bubble bath, read the Witches by Roald Dahl, knit toe socks, and otherwise nourish yourself, but self-care is a side-effect of enjoying God and glorifying Him, not the goal. Self-care is the fruit, not the tree.

2. Stop sweating to win. Guess what. There are people better at life than you. There will probably always be someone better than you. And even if you are the world-proclaimed champion of this-or-that, you’ll always be terrified that people will realize that you’re just you. So jump out of the game now. Stop faking strength or hiding strength, be honest about where and who you are, and start doing what you do for the glory of God rather than the glory of you.

3. Read Job or the first few chapters of Hosea. God is not comfortable. The self-esteem game pursues what you need for your recovery – a faithful significant other, a cookie, or alone time. But Jesus doesn’t preach healing through comfort and happiness, though He does promise healing. When we submit to Jesus, our lives fall apart. Old routines split like plastic grocery bags, spilling treasured dreams like eggs in the middle of the parking lot. But it’s only through the process of losing ourselves and our comfort that we are forced to rely on Jesus, and it’s only in His arms that we find healing.

Why isn’t self-esteem the answer?  Here’s what I think.

What do you think about high self-esteem? Is it really necessary for recovery, or is there a better path toward healing? Spark the conversation with a comment!

Aloneness (Response to a Video)

This is a beautiful video. I love how she treasures solitude and embraces silence. The practice of aloneness is easily crowded out by lists and assignments and the feeling of unwantedness that often comes attached to aloneness.  But if I release fear and allow myself to be alone, I make space to not just act, but to listen.

Often being alone means I’m free to binge/purge/cut/otherwise engage in stupid behaviors. But do I use bulimia to hide me from the intimacy of solitude? Am I afraid of being alone because I’m afraid of facing myself in all my messiness, and worse, being naked under the piercing Light of my Creator?

In the Bible, worship practiced in solitude is contrasted with religious pomp, which today could look like running VBS, singing on the worship team, leading a bible study, going on mission trips, and joining all the camps and conferences and retreats that come your way (Matthew 6:1-34). But when you close your door and strip away all performance, you are able to be humble and still. 

I have begun to walk alone in the mornings, and I have been called to be single for this time in my life, and I have not yet found my “group” at college, and I am glad in all of this. Not because I’m “happy in my head,” but because I’m joyful in my soul, for my stillness has become an openness to Jesus, and my solitude has become a quiet sanctuary for worship.

I want to continue to practice being alone with my God, my holy sweetness. To stop barricading my heart with noise and fall still and open.

How do you feel about being alone? Answer in the comments!

Enough

I am learning to say enough.

When chattering calories surface, I say enough. When I crave another handful of chocolate chips, I say enough. When I am walking through a store and start gathering odds and doodads, I put them back and say, I have enough. When I feel overwhelmed by college looming on the horizon, I say, I am enough because Jesus is more than enough.

Enough is not a bald desert, it’s a content simplicity. I am not hungry, so I will not eat the rest of my apple. I am hungry, so I will eat a brownie. I need a coat, so I will buy a snazzy maroon pea coat at a thrift store. I don’t need a car, so I won’t buy one.  I watched a movie yesterday, so I won’t watch a movie today.

As I say enough, I clear space in my life for what really matters – bringing God glory and enjoying him forever.

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. – Psalm 131:2

What do you think? Have you learned to say “enough?” Tell me in the comments!

The Three Pitfalls of Intuitive Eating

1. Slavery to hunger. Every time your stomach feels a pang, you drop everything and fix yourself a snack, terrified that leaving hunger unwatched will push you into a binge. You eat a little beyond the full point, because you’re afraid of starving yourself (understandable, especially if you’ve suffered with anorexia or anorexic behaviors in the past). You obsessively check in with yourself – am I hungry? Am I hungry now?

2. Slavery to the rules. You wrote the rules all over your kitchen, freezer, pantry, bedroom door. You chant them to yourself before you eat. And when you break them, you feel so guilty that you say, “I can’t even do intuitive eating. I’m a failure” and give up.

3. Slavery to fullness. You use the stop when you’re full statute to skimp on your meals. Instead of eating until you are satisfied, you take the minimum bites to ease your rumbly belly. You feel hungry, but you tell yourself you’re not sure if it’s “real hunger.”

Life happens. You’re at a birthday party, or you’re watching a movie and munching popcorn and milk duds, or you forgot to plan and ended up without lunch. It’s okay. Remember the definition of normal eating? Trust your body to make up for lapses.

You’re still figuring this out. You’ll make mistakes. Just examine yourself, recognize the pitfalls you’ve tripped into, and crawl back out again. You’re okay. You can eat normally, and intuitive eating can help get you there. Believe in the process and persevere.

Do you struggle with any of these pitfalls? Have you found a trick that helps keep you on track? Let us know in the comments!

Gumption and Fingernail Clippers

Approaching the end of my comfort zone is like approaching a 10-foot, prison-grade barbed wire fence with fingernail clippers. Not toenail clippers, fingernail clippers. Run a 5k? Teach a creative writing class? Teach an art class? Get a job? Go to a rigorous liberal arts school? Sell a short story? Ha. I’ll just go trim my nails, thanks.

When I first began recovery, my comfort zone was as spacious as a hamster cage. Walking downstairs was a challenge. Just eating dinner with my family every night exhausted me to the point of isolation. I was scared of everything. And I was so, so tired, both physically and emotionally.

I remember when an adventure was a choice to go to the store. Smells, people, food, I braved them all. I was proud, and I deserved it. I remember when wearing shorts was a magnificent joust with bulimia. When writing a short story left me trembling and pale. When calling a friend left my heart pounding and my emotions reeling. But clip by clip through the barbed wire, I reclaimed my gumption.

This summer I accomplished all of that scary list, from the 5k to putting down my deposit at New Saint Andrews College. I am no longer exhausted, my body and soul are healing. Curiosity sweetens my lips. I am filled with joyfear for the future.

Clip by clip by clip, I’ve sprung the fence of my comfort zone. Now I’m walking into the open field, vulnerable and irrepressible. I kick off my shoes, breathe the perfume of dandelions, and blow a thousand terrifying wishes.

God & Spilled Milk

I use God like I use Perfect Recovery.  I am spiritually illuminated by a book, retreat, or sermon, so I launch into a New Life with Jesus. I construct bible reading plans, fasts, prayer time, and accountability groups.

I create a different identity and a different life that are much more worthy to lay at the feet of the Creator God of the Universe. I create a new self empowered with multivitamins and the Lord’s Prayer instead of surrendering who I am in the moment. I create an alternate life jammed with new good habits and purged of old bad ones.  I use spirituality like make-up, highlighting the best and concealing the worst.

Then I spill the milk. After all my spiritual perfection, I accidentally reveal the real me – bulimic, cutter, needy, greedy. And I immediately pull away from God. I can’t meet him when I’m ugly. I only want intimacy with him when it makes me look better.

God has so much more for me (and you!) than that. He already knows me keeled over the toilet, a toothbrush jammed down my throat. He already knows me with a knife tugging through my skin. He already knows me stumbling across porn on tumblr and lingering too long. He knows me. I can’t hide from him by refusing intimacy with him.

But if I look up to him in that ugly moment, something new happens. I confess where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m looking at. And his sweet forgiveness rushes in to wash me pure, his strength moves my fingers to make a different choice, his conviction slices through self-deception and gives me the clarity to cry out and run in the opposite direction.

I become too wrapped up in my Savior and His adventure with me to hate myself. It’s just not about me anymore. It’s about Him.

If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing messy. And a relationship with God is so worth doing.

Transformation & Spilled Milk

Photo by Dan Pupius

It’s your first shot at recovery. Or perhaps it’s your hundredth. Perhaps you’re crawling out of a long relapse, bloated and hungry and tired of lying to yourself. So you create a Recovery Plan, perhaps with bible studies to complete, friends to call, exercises to finish, and books to read. You wake up glittering shining on Day One, committed to Intuitive Eating or Josie Lenore. You’ve reblogged “No Binge August” and written “1 Days Since Purging” on your mirror. You’ve tattooed the eating disorder recovery symbol on your wrist. This time, you won’t mess up. This time, no milk will be split.

Until you do. And milk goes sprawling across the table.

Then you’ve ruined your Perfect Recovery. You’ve messed up again. You tried your hardest, so you must just not be strong enough for recovery. You did your best, so you’re obviously not good enough. You’ve been in your disorder too long, you’re carrying too many scars, this recovery thing is not for you. So you leap back into your disorder. It’s all or nothing. Either you do it perfect, or you don’t do it at all.

Perfect Recovery is just another extension of your disorder. It’s crushing black & white thinking disguised as something wholesome. But it’s not wholesome. It will drag you down just as surely as vomiting, bingeing, and starving. You’re trying to create a Perfect Self with all the right answers for the therapists and for herself – just like your eating disorder is trying to create a Perfect Self with control, beauty, and strength. Both are destructive.

My friend said something crazy last night when I confessed to my perfectionistic ways. He said, “If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing messy.”

What? You mean recovery is worth doing up to my elbows in spilled milk? Even if today I binged, yesterday I cut, and my head is a whirlwind of lies? It’s worth it to just keep going? To confess my failures and move on into fresh success, then stumble again, confess again, move on again? To accept my disordered, goofy, clueless, flibbertigibbet self as I really am – broken, needy, and hungry for truth?

It’s only in that place, when I accept that I am desperate, incapable of perfect, that I can give all the Transformation power to Jesus. I can’t transform me. But he can. Jesus sees me down to my core. I can’t fake it for him like I fake it for myself. He knows that I can’t squeeze and bludgeon myself into perfection. He knows that six months out, I’ll still have a rumbling stomach for Perfect, Skinny, and Power. And he takes me anyway.

I’m no longer in control. I’m no longer worshipping my own Perfect Self. I’m where I’m supposed to be, open handed, centered on Jesus, letting go of myself. And that’s when healing happens. That’s when recovery happens. Because I never had the power to make them happen in the first place.

Release perfect. Get sticky. Anything worth doing is worth doing messy.

Real Story: Rebecca

Photo by Manatari

I remember one day in English class we were talking about traditions around the holidays. The conversation moved to family, the funny, zany, crazy family. We also talked about what family we didn’t really didn’t like seeing, but went to see anyway, out of obligation. I said that for me it was my grandmother, but we don’t see her anymore. My teacher said “Yes finally! You had the courage to stop the madness!” Honestly, I would have wished that we all just mutually said that we would rather spend time with people we really want to be around, and let each other be, but that isn’t what happened.

My grandmother is not the best person to be around. To fully grasp what I will later tell you, you need to understand more who she is. She is manic-depressive. I have heard stories from my mother about how when I was born she wanted my mother to leave me with her for the day, I being an infant. So when my mother said no, my grandmother got mad. My mother was the bad child and my grandmother didn’t take the refusal of her service well. After I was a year old, we moved to California. Then, when I was 7 we moved back east and reconnected with my grandmother out here. Everything seemed okay to me, but I never really liked her.

Looking back recently at pictures I realized that I gained a lot of weight on the move back, and I was pretty overweight. This rubbed my grandmother the wrong way. She thought that I needed to lose weight. So for Christmas and birthdays she would ask my mother what my clothing size was, and every time follow it up with what was my weight. She knew what I wanted was books and music and slippers, but every year she tried to get me clothing. And she would ask why my mother didn’t weigh me more often. I remember one time I went out to dinner with her, and with my mother, father, and siblings there, she proceeded to cut my burger in half, then again in half and deemed it appropriate for me to eat the fourth of my original meal.

My grandmother is extremely overweight herself, so one would think that she would understand and be kinder, but that was one of many occasions. It not only hurt me and my self-image, but also would anger my mother. It all became worse, however, when she moved in with us to recuperate after a surgery. We moved the dining room table out and a bed in, hung curtains in the doorways to the room. We fed her and helped her with her physical therapy. She even had to be helped to go to the bathroom. We did everything to help her. But I hated having her here.  It was bad enough to have to have her hang over me when I was at her house, but now I felt that I wasn’t even safe in my own house.

    So I ate less and less at meals. And I snuck food up into my room. I would snack when she wasn’t around. This little habit turned into a battle with binge eating that lasted 3 years. I gained weight, thought about possibly trying to throw up, but since that is one of the two eating disorders that schools talk about, telling you all of the dangers of it, I decided against it. Well of course this led to a worse self-image.

And this was the start of my freshman year of high school. That’s right, the pimples, the crushes, the popular girls, the everything else that can make high school suck. And for me it was magnified. This eating disorder and this thing with my grandmother putting me down, and the fact of high school being high school and me being a hormonal teenager didn’t help. So this all gave way to a bout with depression. It wasn’t as hard as some of the stories you hear; I never harmed myself physically, thank God. And because it wasn’t “hard-core” depression, I thought it wasn’t bad enough to warrant help. I believed that it was regular and one of the necessary evils of growing up.

Depression is destructive. I would sit alone in my room; eliminate any and all sources of light, anything that could shine on my desperation and anger. One common misconception, depressed doesn’t mean sad. I was angry. Seeing-red, biting my lip until it almost bled angry. I hated and hated and hated. I hated how I looked, how I interacted with my parents, my siblings, my friends. I would try to get out of going anywhere. I loathed going to school or anything after school that I committed to. I despised going to church and seeing people at youth group. I felt as though I had to hide who I really was, like I had to be fake. I was mean to my younger siblings. I threw around biting remarks and burning glances. I listened to harder music than I normally did, music that would speak of the type of anger I felt. And I became angrier. I shut off people and built up walls, walls made of bricks of anger and loathing and fear.

This is where Unglossed came in. I was a frequent visitor and poster. I read one of the Ordinary Testimonies, “o-Gravity,” and it completely changed my view of it. Of everything. The minute I finished I walked into the kitchen and asked my mother if I could speak to a therapist.

I won’t go into the gritty details of everything past that point. The important thing is that I got better. So much better. And I thank God for that.

Now for the lesson behind all of this. This story wasn’t poetic. It wasn’t a devastating Shakespearian tragedy. It sucked to live it, though. Don’t ever think that you aren’t depressed enough to get help.

When I become a senior, I will be asked to give senior advice. I have two words of advice that I would share.

One, Breathe. When everything is crashing and colliding and caving in, when you feel like it all is getting to be too much, take a deep breath. Pull yourself out of the situation. Think. And always remember, you are never alone. “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10 ESV)

Two, Never Regret. Ever. When this bad stuff happens, it sucks. You will hate it while it is happening. But my constant comfort is that God has a plan for my life. That all of this has a purpose, and while I hate that this all happens, it happens for a reason. Remember that whatever happens, good or bad, it shapes who you are and who you will be. I am not saying that you should be happy that this happens. Not at all. It is horrible that people have to deal with these issues. But because of God’s love and mercy and flawless, incorruptible plans, we can take comfort in the fact that it will turn out ok. Looking back, I can see how this experience has helped me. Helped me to relate to a friend in need when she came to me with the same problems. Helped me to be able to write this and hopeful help people who are hurting see the hope, that there is the light at the end of this darkness. Because there is. And it is a bright, warm, welcoming light.

Rebecca Pletscher

Planting First Thoughts

A gargantuan hill mounts before me, a monster of sidewalk and height. Yes, one mile up, steep enough to land you on your back. It’s 85 degrees, I have sweat running down my calves, and at the moment, I hate running. But my first thought as I face the Hill is: I can do this. I will do this.  I’m not an optimist of epic proportions. Trust me, at this point, I’m more likely to strangle myself with my shoelaces than chant a mantra. But I’ve learned to plant pockets of empowering thoughts along my run before I get to the challenge.

Early in my run, when I’m feeling strong and shiny, I coach myself. “When you get the the Hill, what will your first thought be?”

“I can do this.”

“When you’re tired and stupid with heat and you hit a wall, what will your first thought be?”

“I can do this.” 

And I can.

This technique works for recovery, too. You can plan ahead. “When I see a skinny, perfect woman and I look down at myself to compare, what will my first thought be?” “When I feel like all I want to die, what will my first thought be?” “When I open the refrigerator, what will my first thought be?”

“I am beautiful.”

“This too will pass.”

“I choose recovery.”

Create your own first thoughts. Something that touches you deep. Something you will respect enough in the heat of the moment to flip your attitude for. Over time, these thoughts become automatic, springing up to meet you whenever a trigger is tripped.

“I can do this,” is simple, but for me, it represents a mountain of effort. I can run three miles. I can mount the hill. So I have no excuse to shirk it. I’ve trained for these moments, I know I have the option to be strong. So how could I choose anything else? A single burst of truth can pierce the negative chatter and give you an open door to a different choice.