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addiction, counseling

Why Can't You Just Stop It?


One of my favorite film clips is a scene where Bob Newhart is playing a psychologist                                                                                                     listening to a patient describe her struggle with an unwanted behavior pattern.  Bob’s advise                                                                                     to her is “Stop it!”.  She is quite distressed at the simplicity of his answer and wants more so                                                                                       he expands his 2 word answer to a 10 word answer, “Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”                                                                                         Don’t you wish it were that easy?

Recently I had to step down from my pastorate because of a return to an addictive                                                                                                       pattern of sexual activity.  Twenty years earlier I had experienced significant victory over this                                                                                     addiction.  In the years since I had been very involved in helping people who were addicted;                                                                                       counseling, leading retreats, teaching, preaching and mentoring.  Because of my choices, I                                                                                         lost my income, my insurance, many friends and my reputation in the community.  Did my behavior mean that I didn’t love God or believe the truths I was passing on to others?  Did it mean that I didn’t love my wife and children?  Absolutely not!  Why weren’t those things enough to keep me from giving in to the addiction?  Why would someone seemingly so intelligent and passionate do something so stupid?  Why couldn’t I just stop it!

If you know someone, a friend, family member, co-worker, who struggles with addiction of any kind, the question often comes up, “Why can’t they just stop it?”  Wives wonder why the love between them is not enough to make them stop.  Children are puzzled why they aren’t enough to end the addiction.  Church members can’t understand how being a part of the body of Christ doesn’t solve the problem.  Co-workers question why unemployment isn’t enough of a motivator and friends conclude that the addict just doesn’t really care about their friendship.  

The truth is that while the addictive behavior looks like the deepest desire of the addict, it really isn’t.  The deepest desire of our hearts is to love and to be loved.  It is what God created us for and it is what Jesus said when He was asked about the greatest commandment.  Ultimately only God can fill this need for love and give us the capacity to love. Because we are all born sinners, separated from God, we all seek to attach to someone who loves us.  In our formative relationships, we find some fulfillment for our need.  

For the person who struggles with addiction, the ability to attach to other people in healthy loving relationships was hindered by some hurt, rejection or wound.  Since God created us for love, this loss is keenly felt and seeks equilibrium.  Without the necessary healthy relationships, the addicted person attaches to some unhealthy coping mechanism or behavior that helps to reduce any stress, tension, pain or rejection.  The chosen behavior (food, alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, gambling, shopping, etc.,), either distracts from the discomfort or replaces it with momentary pleasure or excitement.  This new, substitute attachment creates a destructive thinking and feeling process that drives the addictive behavior.  Research indicates that 95% of people who struggle with sexual addiction have an insecure or dysfunctional attachment style.  They never felt truly loved or accepted.  Over time, this destructive thinking and feeling process becomes nearly involuntary and a conscious exercise of the will or intervention is necessary to change it.  God’s unconditional love is the greatest intervention available.  

When we separate or dissociate from the pain of rejection or wounds, we not only form unhealthy attachments to behaviors, we also create in our minds a false self that we can use to hide behind.   In his book, Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning describes the creation of the false self this way,

“When I was eight, the imposter, or false self, was born as a defense against pain.  The imposter within whispered, ‘Brennan, don’t ever be your real self anymore because nobody likes you as you are.  Invent a new self that everybody will admire and nobody will know.’ So, I became a good boy – polite, well-mannered, unobtrusive, and deferential.  I studied hard, scored excellent grades, won a scholarship in high school, and was stalked every waking moment by the terror or abandonment and the sense that nobody was there for me.”

My own false self was birthed out of the pain of sexual abuse.  This “other” me was strong and capable.  He had to take care of himself because he couldn’t trust that anyone else would take care of him.  He had to make things happen and fix things to impress people.  My false self was driven to perform.

There are those who believe that reaching into someone’s past to help resolve a current behavior pattern is a waste of time.  I agree that it would be easy to get stuck in the past, blaming others for our behaviors and living as a victim.  We all need to get to the place, though, where we can let go of the past so that we can be fully present in each day.  Understanding the unhealthy attachment and its origin can help to break the attachment because the need no longer exists.  We can even go back in our minds and invite the unconditional love of God into the place of our wounding.   Twenty years ago I identified my false self, the origin of my unhealthy attachments and the lies and labels that were a part of the destructive thinking and feeling process in my mind.  I began to sense the love of God and began to lean into him to take care of me and make things happen.  This newfound freedom broke the attachment to my addiction and I began to experience victory.  

There were many factors that led to my digression but they reflect two major areas of my life.  First the stress, tension, pressure and rejection that naturally happen in a growing pastoral ministry motivated me to isolate from people and triggered the desire to re-attach to the addictive behavior as a way of coping with a type of pain that I was all to familiar with.  Second, I failed to fully cultivate the love relationship with the Father and slowly replaced loving God with serving God.   

I had chosen, years before, to cast down the false self and live out of my true identity as a child of God, loved, accepted and forgiven.  Because Christ had already done all of the work to secure this new identity for me, all I had to do was choose to believe it and choose to walk in it. This is a choice we can make every day.  It is always available to us.  

I do wish that those who struggle with addiction could “Just stop it!”  Sometimes the unhealthy attachments and desires are completely removed as we learn to walk in the love of God.  However, if the old wounds get triggered and we choose to give in to the temptation to re-attach to our old pattern of behavior we might find ourselves experiencing the power of the addiction once again.  We don’t have power to stop being triggered, or to stop being tempted or even to stop desiring the behavior.  But we do have a choice now.  The love of God has intervened in our lives and we can choose to attach to that love.  We can choose love, we can choose life.

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