About this blogger:
Ronda Chervin received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University and an MA in Religious Studies from Notre Dame Apostolic Institute. A widow, mother, and grandmother, she currently teaches philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. Write to her at chervinronda@gmail.com.
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“Vatican II did not say anything about the direction of the celebrant. […] I love both directions of celebrating Mass. Both are full of meaning for me. Both help me to encounter Christ—and that is, after all, the purpose of the liturgy.”
— Christoph Cardinal Schönborn (February 2007)

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Insights about Addiction
published 4 June 2013 by Dr. Ronda Chervin

A brother in an admired religious community who works with addicts sent me this article he wrote. I thought it to be thought-provoking.

Addiction and Relapse as a Short-circuit Mechanism

Ben Harrison

May 2013

Very often when a person experiences some disease or physical problem it can be seen as a symptom of an imbalance that needs to be corrected—a lack of some vitamin or mineral, too much rich food, a lack of sleep or exercise, too much or too little work, or even shoes that don’t fit properly. The illness or painful condition can then be seen as a positive sign that something needs to change and as an incentive to make that change.

I see addiction as such a “canary in the mineshaft.” Whether or not you believe that addiction is a disease, I think we can agree that it is at least like a disease in that we don’t ask for it, it causes suffering to us and those around us; it seems to have a life of its own, it can ruin our health, we can’t make it go away and, if untreated, it will probably result in an early death.

One of the objections to “the disease concept” is that the alcoholic or addict can use that as an excuse to say, “Oh, well, I have a disease, I can’t do anything about it, so I’ll just carry on until it kills me.” But most people who learn that they have some other sickness don’t say, “I can’t do anything about this flu, this hearing impairment or this cancer, so I’ll just sit back and let it work havoc on me.” On the contrary, most people will do something to change the situation, even if only to drink more liquids, take an aspirin or stay in bed a couple of days. Many people will go to great lengths, even to the point of invasive surgery and expensive medicines, to improve the condition or at least lessen the pain. Similarly, if the effects of addiction become painful enough, people will try to do something to diminish that pain. That is why those who soften the painful consequences of using end by “enabling” addicts to continue their self-destructive behaviour.

The question, then, is this: if addiction indicates an imbalance that can be corrected, what is the imbalance and how can we correct it? If the canary in the mineshaft stops singing, it means that there isn’t enough oxygen and too much carbon monoxide, and the miners better clear out as soon as possible.

The twelve-step approach says that the problem is at least partly one of attitude or thinking, a faulty view of one’s own situation vis a vis others and reality at large. Addiction is a spiritual malady, a problem of the soul. If you don’t like that terminology, call it psychological, but remember that psyche means soul. Cut to the bare bones, the problem is pride and the solution is humility. Or another way to say the same thing is that the problem is delusion and the answer is truth. I think I can control my moods, regulate my drinking and manipulate other people into helping me carry on. In fact my addiction very graphically demonstrates to others, if not to me, and dramatizes very effectively the fact that I have no power over my feelings of loneliness and despair, that I am unable to control my use of mind- or mood-altering substances and that my associates are so fed up with me or so scared of my erratic behaviour that they will no longer tolerate my company.

Addiction is a bit like a short-circuit mechanism. When a builder installs wiring in a house, he takes precautions so that a surge of electrical power will not be able to start a fire. He installs a fuse box or a circuit breaker that will cause the electrical system to shut down rather than allow a high level of electrical energy to burn out the wiring and risk incinerating the house. When a person (or a society) experiences a dangerous level of pride and self-will, that person seems to have a built-in tendency to over-reach in ways that lead to an energy failure. If we keep trying to force the system to carry more inflated ego-energy than it can accommodate, the system keeps shutting down. This fact should warn the person that something needs to change, that the system needs to be earthed or grounded in some way to prevent burnout or explosion. The difference between the situation of the addict and the electrical system is that the addict can choose to override or disable the short-circuit mechanism. This will sooner or later result in death, by overdose or some other physiological or psychological failure.

One of my oldest friends in recovery, after an intensive period in a rehab, came home full of wise and witty sayings. It was from her mouth that I first heard, “The only thing you need to know about God is – it’s not you!” In my simile, what in addiction is equivalent to the surge of electrical power? An unrealistic sense of self, a sense that I am God of my life, that I can control myself and others. This is what recovery literature refers to as “the king baby syndrome,” the tendency toward grandiosity, self-obsession, egotism or entitlement. I am a special, unique and sensitive soul, and I want everyone else to collaborate in making it possible for me to maintain the illusion that I am master of my own destiny. The way I have found to maintain that illusion is using my drug of choice, whatever that may be (and remember, that drug can also be a rush of adrenalin, a slump of self-pity or some other emotionally charged reaction). What I need to do, then, is correct my thinking and start trying to live in accordance with the truth rather than these illusions. For me the concept of Truth is therefore one possible “Higher Power”. Truth is higher than falsehood, and if I live my life according to what is real, then I am not as likely to run into the brick walls hidden behind my heroic fantasies or imaginary constructions.

It seems apt to introduce the word humility at this point. Humus is earth, and humility means living with your feet on the ground, living rooted in the truth. The truth is that I am a small creature, not God, and that I have various needs which have to be owned and honoured or I will die. Also the truth is that there are many things that have the capacity to harm me, and one of those is drugs. Further, there are various forces that are stronger than I am and have the capacity to help me to grow and find happiness. I can choose one of these as a higher power, an energy that will help me to see myself and reality more clearly and to make my choices accordingly.

One of the early pioneers of AA thought was the psychiatrist Dr. Harry Tiebout. He summarized the twelve-step approach as four basic movements: hitting bottom, surrender, ego-deflation at depth and maintenance of humility. Hitting bottom is the moment of crashing into the brick wall, the moment of short-circuit, when you realize things can’t go on as before. Surrender is accepting that that is the case and that any further action will be based on that recognition of powerlessness. Ego-deflation is the process of dawning awareness, self-examination, self-revelation and amends-making that comprises steps four to nine. But the entire rest of the recovery agenda consists, in my opinion, of the maintenance of humility. That is the core of the spiritual life, for anyone who is in recovery as well as for anyone who wants to experience any kind of vibrant personal growth. Humility is the grounding or earth-wire that allows the potent currents of life and love to flow through us without burning us to bits. Humility primes the pump, humility clears the empty space within us which can be filled with grace or understanding or any others of the spiritual gifts available to us humans. H