Since returning to Ireland after twenty-seven years spent in Cambodia, I have been puzzled by the links between addiction and spirituality. Perhaps the link passes through an ecological conversion.
Five books on addiction have provided me with some useful insights. In this blog, I will reflect on Jeffrey Shaler’s “Addiction is a Choice” (2000), Jim Orford’s “Excessive Appetites” (2001), Christopher D. Ringwald’s “The Soul of Recovery” (2002), Bruce K. Alexander’s “The Globalisation of Addiction” (2008), and Adam Alter’s “Irresistible” (2017).
Jeffrey Schaler argues cogently that addiction is a psychological phenomenon not a physiological one. In other words, he argues that addiction is not a disease and cannot be successfully treated as such. People should be left free to follow their own free choices in life so long as they do not impede on other people’s free choice. This debate echoes a debate from long ago in the history of Christian theology. Pelagius insisted that all human beings possess free-will and so can make the good choice. However St. Augustine argued that our free will can be progressively captured by disordered love until only a modicum of true freedom remains. It is a question of ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or’.
Jim Orford uses detailed psychological and social research to argue that addictive behavior patterns occur not only in relation to substance abuse (alcohol, drugs and food) but also in relation to gambling, sex, exercise and other activities. He then studies how these addictions develop over time until the attachment becomes so strong that inner conflict threatens to destroy the person concerned.
The criteria for determining the existence of a behavioral addiction might include, salience (prominence), mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse. Orford recognizes three similar paths to recovery, spontaneous remission, 12 step programs or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Rates of long-lasting sobriety are similar in all three cases, about 25%. Orford concludes that long-term recovery depends on the development of a personal spiritual life.
Christopher D. Ringwald travelled all over the United States of America to visit and evaluate the myriad programs and clinics that have been established to treat addictions. He analysed programs for the middle class and in poor areas as well as among women and Native Americans. He evaluated recovery statistics from secular and faith-based programs. He monitored harm-reduction programs and healing in therapeutic communities. He interviewed alcoholics, drug-addicts, expert counsellors and family members. He concludes that in a Democracy, it is vital to allow and encourage all addiction recovery programs that integrate the development of personal spirituality, even when these approaches are faith-based. The development of a personal spirituality is essential to long-term sobriety.
Starting from the example of his own city, Vancouver, Bruce Alexander argues for a “paradigm-shift” in treating addictions. He prevents historical evidence to show that the roots of all addictions lie in the adoption of a Free-market society which causes severe dislocation to families, communities, ethnic groups and whole peoples. This dislocation prevents traditional forms of psycho-social integration so addiction becomes a way of adapting to this dislocation. If Governments and the Mass-media continue to promote increased consumption in a Free-market economy, the pandemic of addiction will only increase until humanity becomes paralyzed and our civilization collapses like the Roman empire did.
Alexander does not deny the effectiveness of recovery programs for individuals but he asserts that these individual recoveries will never form a “critical-mass” to overturn the addiction pandemic. By reflecting on many historical examples, he argues convincingly for the creation of alliances of concerned citizens who will cooperate together to create a new “Republic” by dialogue about values and virtue like Socrates did at the start of our democratic civilization. It is the impending destruction of our planet that will stimulate this cooperative effort
Adam Alter writes about the rise of addictive technology and the techniques it uses to keep us hooked. The first part of his book deals with the biology of behavioral addiction. The second part of the book deals with the features that internet companies devise to engineer addictive behaviors in us. They include, setting goals, providing feedback, measuring progress, providing escalation, cliff-hangers and social interaction. He notes that Face-book’s popularity soared once it added the “like” button that could count because suddenly, everyone could compare themselves to everyone else. He tells stories of young people addicted to computer gaming and illustrates the devastating consequences for themselves and their families. In the third part of his book, he offers some solutions and tactics to nip these additions in the bud before they develop. Adler essential point is that Big Tech is slowly turning us and all into internet junkies who become incapable of real human relationships and independent thought.
It seems that all these authors are indicating that the problem of addiction in modern society is really mal-adaption to the ecological crisis promoted by the Free-market economy and facilitated by big Tech. Only a spiritual conversion to a collective effort to downsize in dialogue with those on the margins will allow regeneration of our planet and human communities. Addictions will disappear in the process!