By Bishop Paul V. Marshall
[This is Bishop Paul Marshall's October 2009 column for secular newspapers throughout our 14 counties. It is published by The Morning Call, Allentown, on the first Saturday of every month. It usually appears also in ten additional papers. The combined circulation of papers that publish the column regularly is more than 400,000. Some 140 columns have been published over the past 13 years. If your paper does not publish the column and you would consider bringing it to the attention of the editor, please email Bill Lewellis, firstname.lastname@example.org]
“Susan,” 45, is fairly well off and is a prescription drug addict. She could go for weeks without using, but then, unaccountably to her, she would use and embarrass herself in front of husband and guests.
“Bill,” 50, has a middle-management job in his father’s business and is a compulsive gambler. Every day, on his way to work, he gambles a little more than he can afford. Debt has piled up; bankruptcy looms. His father and brothers are furious.
Sadly, Twelve-Step programs did not work for Susan or Bill. Now, nobody in my business ought to criticize Twelve-Step programs. They work for and retain over eight percent of people who come through their doors. No religious institution can claim to keep eight percent of those who come to visit, not even half of that.
Both Bill and Susan found their way to Lance Dodes, a psychiatrist. As they talked with him, something unexpected was revealed. Their lives were far from out of control. On the contrary, their addictions served to give them a sense of control. In fact, they felt better just before they took the pill or placed the bet. The rush started with the decision to do their addictions. They felt, however briefly, in charge of their own lives.
Dodes reports asking Susan to describe the last time she used. She said her husband called her at 5:00 to tell her he was bringing six business associates home and she should get a good dinner ready. They would want to eat at 7:00. She used. He and his associates arrived home to a kind of dinner and a Susan who was obviously in no condition to socialize.
Susan had never learned to draw boundaries with her husband and had never learned how to express anger. Her way to have some control of an unacceptable situation was do the drugs, even though they made the situation worse in most respects.
In the same way, Bill realized that he was dealing with a job he hated and a sense of financial frustration through his gambling. He did not know any other way to take charge of his own life and stand up to his father.
Dodes’s work (journal articles and a popular version called The Heart of Addiction) provides a path for some people who cannot or will not “get the program” of admitting lack of control and surrendering to a higher power. These people profit from seeing themselves taking control of their lives and learning to stand up for themselves.
I do not see these two approaches to addiction as in conflict, but as complementary. Their co-existence reminds us of the generous pluralism of the universe. They also remind us of something else: while for some it may be a matter of genes or physical addiction, addictive behavior is very often the symptom of profound personal problems.
It is no surprise that that these problems turn out to be “spiritual.” That word connotes the threads that hold a person together, her outlook on herself and the world, and her ability to find her true self in circumstances that demand a false self.
To find their true selves Bill and Susan had to abandon their addictive behavior, a hard enough task that demanded much support, but more significantly they also had to develop the integrity — another spiritual word — to be themselves in circumstances that often demanded that they be false. While considering this, pray for people who take up that struggle, admire them, and ask if anything in your own life keeps you from being yourself.
[The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall is bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem, 14 counties of eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania. His recently published book, Messages in the Mall: Looking at Life in 600 Words or Less (Seabury), is a collection of ten years of his monthly columns for newspapers. Additional columns and sermons by Bishop Marshall are available at www.diobeth.org.]