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Becoming a Catholic can be a spur to overcoming addiction

A friend’s newfound belief in his unique dignity as a human being loved by God made him see his addictive lifestyle in a new light

By on Monday, 13 August 2012

Prescription pills can be addictive too (Photo: PA)

Prescription pills can be addictive too (Photo: PA)

I have been reading Damian Thompson’s The Fix: How addiction is invading our lives and taking over your world (Collins: £18.99) and finding it – well, rather addictive. This is partly because I have a (manageable) addiction to print as it is, but also because of his thought-provoking thesis. This is that “more and more of us are being pulled towards some form of addiction” – whether in its old forms, such as drink, gambling or drugs, or in its new forms, such as sugared foods, internet pornography or iPhones.

Damian defines addiction as “the progressive replacement of people by things” and he thinks people are more addicted than they were 40 years ago. It is easy to accept this: humans are naturally not very self-controlled, there is less religious authority or parental authority over young people, and new technology – the internet, iPhones etc – make it fatally easy to create an addiction and to feed it effortlessly. That’s the bad news.

The good news, according to the author, is that addiction is not a disease. He accepts that some people are more vulnerable than others and that, for instance, alcoholism can run in families, but “trying to draw the line between genetic predisposition and environmental conditioning is an impossible task”. He is honest about his own past history of alcoholism and pays tribute to the power of the therapeutic community in AA, which probably saved his life. However, he never accepted the central tenet of AA, stated at every meeting he attended: members have to admit they have no control over their drinking. They do. “Powerful desire doesn’t lobotomise us,” he argues; addiction is “a disorder of choice.”

That’s the good news and I was cheered to read it. If we describe addiction as a disease, as we would describe cancer, we become victims. The addiction has seemingly invaded us against our will and we are powerless in its grip. But Damian emphasises that, “however intense the craving that a drug addict experiences, the decision to take the drug involves uniquely human, rational functions”. He relates the story of two of his friends, both addicts like himself. One finally committed suicide after years of a self-destructive lifestyle while the other eventually broke his addiction entirely on his own. AA doesn’t allow that this can happen; thus it would argue that people who go it alone are obviously not alcoholics in the first place.

As it happens, I also know someone whom the textbooks would describe as a classic “addictive personality”, whose life was dominated by a long-term combination of drugs, drink, sex and heavy smoking. He became a Catholic and has subsequently turned his life around. He still struggles – but willpower, grace, the decision to avoid old haunts and triggers to his cravings, choosing a different group of friends and resolving on a more healthily structured daily round, has transformed his life.

There is also the matter of availability, which is not emphasised enough in the author’s view: when addictive substances are easily available (as with US soldiers in Vietnam) people succumb; when availability is removed (as when those same soldiers returned to the US), the addiction generally stops. Damian adds intriguingly that in earlier times alcoholism was seen as a sin, with temperance as its opposite virtue. Nowadays “addiction” has replaced the concept of “sin”. But unlike sin it has a tendency to absolve us of responsibility for our behaviour; it emasculates us.

Of course, people can make good choices rather than bad ones without religious faith. Nonetheless, my friend’s newfound belief in his unique dignity as a human being loved by God has made him see his old life – his destructive drives and appetites, his sins as we would call them – in a wholly new light and provided the spur to choose to change.

Damian’s last chapter is entitled “Deliver us from temptation” – a slightly ironic usage of an ancient prayer for help. It’s hard to get away from the “Higher Power”, as AA describes it. This is a book well worth reading – for addicts or otherwise.

  • Domstemp

    That is very interesting – 2 of my family members went through AA and they always refer to alcoholism as a disease – almost as though there is no cure. But it’s like everything – overeating is also called a disease now! I think we seem to have lost the will (as a nation) to resist natural urges – in all areas. It used to be called self-control but this seems an outdated concept.

  • Anon

    Thought-provoking indeed but please don’t take Thompson’s AA-bashing as gospel. Your list of the factors that enabled your friend to kick his habits begins with grace. Well, that’s all the admission of powerlessness is about: clearing the decks to make way for the operation of grace.

  • CluainArd

    Thompson is setting up a straw man – that AA teaches the disease concept – which is easy to knock down. In fact AA doesn’t require you to believe anything in terms of a “theory” of alcoholism. It is highly pragmatic and simply recommends that if something helps you to stay sober -e.g. the disease concept – then use it. If not, Then don’t use it. AA also practises anonymity and I find it sad that a former member should use his experience of recovery for self- publicity. It would be a great shame if Thompson’s book and your article put practising alcoholics off AA as this movement has saved millions of lives and restored the dignity of these people over the past seventy years. I strongly recommend it to Catholics with this proble.

  • CluainArd

    Well said. Sad to see this AA-bashing in a Catholic paper.

  • Anon

    Well said indeed!

  • Welbeck

    Alcoholics and drug addicts need our prayers that they may overcome their demons and weaknesses and not our derision in demeaning articles such as this.

  • Meema

    “Nowadays “addiction” has replaced the concept of “sin”.”
    So addicts are the new sinners? Well it would seem to me that this woman thinks so; for those with addiction(s) are addicts, and those who sin are sinners.
    It also seems to me that this is both a ridiculous and an outrageous statement to make.

    Among the old forms of addiction she did not include religions; where an ancient belief, usually instilled in early childhood, in god, or gods, together with dogma and its correlative faith, often entrap people in a lifestyle from which they can often find it difficult to escape. 

    Ms Phillips’ identifies “new forms” of addiction including sugared foods and iphones. People probably succumb to these (and similar evils) because they like them, and derive pleasure from them. Tut tut (tut).

  • theroadmaster

    Addiction is a disordered form of appetite, which engorges all it sees, before it deems itself to be satisfied.  The common theme among all types of addictive behavior is that the craving seems never to be fulfilled as it continues to demand more of our time and attention.  The root causes often lie deep in the human psyche and often reveal deep emotional scars that one tries to answer by problematical, obsessive behavior to make up for the negativity left behind by them.  Addictions are also signs of human weakness in the face of temptations, which we think will satisfy a deep longing within ourselves but unfortunately only find disillusionment and empty pleasure.  A deep Catholic Faith  can overcome the fleeting false highs that an over-dependence on drugs, alcohol or sex can bring, as false gods are replaced by the truth of the triune God, Who is the only real long-term source of comfort and joy.

  • Parasum

    OTOH, the difficulty people experience in ditching Catholicism can be traced to  addictive behaviours set up by, or caused by, Catholicism. People become reliant on it, it sets up co-dependency, so that even if it has been deeply harmful to them, they can find getting free of it immensely difficult. This is aggravated by its many cult-like features, such as the absolute demands it makes. Catholicism is as liable to be any other thing. It can enslave, not liberate. Cults – because they are Fundamentalist ? – can be as addictive as more obvious drug. If they are world religions, that does not stop them being addictions.

    So it is entirely possible  that a drug addict who becomes a Catholic is simply exchanging one addiction for another – though the addictive bondage of the new addiction may not be clear to the new “Catholicism-addict” for a long time. Result: the addictiveness is not healed – just swapped for some other, equally dehumanising & enslaving, addiction.

    If Catholicism is a cure for addiction, why are there so many alcoholic Catholics, or Catholics “addicted” to Bingo ? Maybe because they still have  addictive personalities.

    Maybe there are no more addicts than there were. The difference may be that the decline is religious observance has led to a change from addiction to religion, to addiction to something else. Maybe people have always had an addiction, & have changed it from a socially-approved one like religion, to one that is not, like taking hash or ecstasy. The decline of an authority in religion might then make the transition from the socially-approved drug to the unapproved easier, & helped to undermine the  social constraints that  helped to curb the taking of the unapproved drugs.

  • theroadandrailsupremo

    The general prognostication and relativism is indded often consequential of strident atheism, with backs turned against the one true church and faith.
    It is time to remember the ramifications of these things and to stand up for what we truely believe in.

  • theroadandrailsupremo

    This displays a fundamental and copiously abhorrent world view to trump all others. It is not for want of empty activity that fail abjectly and philologly to remove bodily disruptive sugar from our foodstuffs and fail to see the true course of singluar action.

  • Nesbyth

    Surely it is all about leading a BALANCED life.
    Overdoing something is a form of “gluttony”, which is never good for anyone.
    Whether it’s spending too long on a computer, or eating too much,  drinking quantities of alcohol that harm the body and brain, or taking drugs that bend the mind etc, then one’s life can take a self-destructive route.
    What I like about the Catholic Church (which is not an addiction) and religious faith in general,is that the essence of their moral teachings is to strike a balance for ONE’S OWN GOOD. The Greek Philosophers said much the same about the Golden Mean.
    I don’t think this article trashes the AA either; rather it investigates Thompson’s theory that addiction is not a disease (if it were then we would be victims) but something we can turn our will-power to work on.

  • cephas2

    Thanks be to God for AA and for the Pioneers. 

  • cephas2

    Sorry, but absolute rubbish.

  • Lord Edmund Moletrousers

    Whilst Damian Thompson shamelessly promotes his book ” the Fix ” on his blog on the Daily Telegraph , he allows Anti Semitic posters a free hand whilst ensuring anybody who is Jewish is Blocked from commenting