A couple weeks ago I spent some time catching up with a long-time family friend. As is often the case for me, the topic of discussion rolled around to addiction and recovery. As we talked, my friend, who is also LDS, became more and more agitated. It soon became clear to me that we were talking past each other, but I couldn’t figure out where the disconnect was.
What seemed to bother her most was when I expressed my belief that I was addicted at age five. She shook her head repeatedly in disbelief and kept saying, “I just don’t see how you could say you were addicted at that young age. It sounds like you’re saying you’re not responsible for your addiction. What about accountability?”
That baffled me. I was speechless–which doesn’t happen too often. I couldn’t figure out what she meant, where she got that idea and how I was supposed to respond. It kind of reminded me of being on my mission and hearing born-again Christians say, “Mormons aren’t Christians.” Such a statement was so preposterous to me that I couldn’t see how I was supposed to answer.
I think I have finally figured out what her agitation was all about. What seemed to bother her so much was my saying that I was not responsible for becoming an addict. I guess in her mind, the fact that someone becomes addicted is itself a sin and so there needs to be some accountability there. If I was addicted at five, wasn’t I really just copping out and saying someone or something else was responsible for my becoming an addict other than me?
Admitting Addiction at a Young Age is Not a Cop Out
No, I wasn’t copping out. I’ve never abdicated responsibility for my behavior and I’ve never even thought that I needed to. So let me be clear: I remain responsible for every decision, action and thought I’ve taken in my life. I am accountable to God and I have a responsibility to repent of and forsake every sin and misdeed in my life. I have never thought otherwise. And I also believe I’ve been addicted to sex and pornography since I was five.
I’ll pose a couple questions here: If the very fact that someone becomes addicted is a sin, then why do active anorexics, bulemics and overeaters in the Church have temple recommends? Why doesn’t the list of temple recommend questions include one about whether we are addicted to anything? Why? Because addiction is not a sin. In contrast, sinful thoughts and behavior are sins. That means that sin is related to addiction but it is not the same thing.
The Slow Train to Addiction Central
It seems like a lot of LDS folks have this idea that addiction is like a train meandering down the line toward Addiction Central. Along the way, they assume, there are at least a thousand stops. If the prospective addict would just exert the willpower, the faith, the common sense or whatever to get off at any one of those thousand stops, addiction could be avoided. Why don’t those idiots just get off the addiction train, they wonder. Isn’t this perhaps a bit of a self-righteous position to take? And telling actual addicts that they can still stop before they become addicted has confused those actual addicts for so long and kept them from seeing what they are (actual addicts, not prospective addicts), admitting it and then getting the help they need to overcome the addiction. It needs to stop.
As an aside, I’ll note that this idea of near-immediate addiction is not something I just made up. As more and more becomes clear about the nature of addiction, experts are re-thinking the assumption that long-term exposure is necessary for addiction for addiction to occur.
Some more questions: In the several local meetings of Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) that I attend, there are about thirty guys who regularly show up. Although not necessarily representative of SA as a whole, nearly every one of them has a graduate degree or is in graduate school. Nearly every one of them is extremely active in one Christian church or another and has been his whole life. If addicts are all stupid and clueless simpletons who merely lack self-control and who just “don’t get it” like all the rest of you out there, how do you explain the graduate degrees? If addicts just don’t understand the nature of sin like all the truly devout Christians do, how do you explain these rooms full of men who believe in Christ and yet have been trying for nearly their entire lives to overcome a compulsion to consume porn and act out sexually?
Do we addicts just not “get it” like you do? Really? You’re that much smarter than we are? Your understanding of the Savior’s Atonement is that much more profound than ours? Please stop. I’m not asking you to ignore and excuse our behavior. I’m just asking that you stop thinking we’re idiots and talking at us and about us like we’re idiots. The problem of addiction is more complicated than most people realize. So is the solution.
I should be quick to point out that I’m not trying to start a debate about who’s smarter or more spiritual–addicts or non-addicts. The point I’m making is that because we need to work together to address the problem, beginning with a viewpoint that addicts are less intelligent and less spiritual than everyone else isn’t accurate and isn’t helpful.
Addiction a Speedy Subway, No More Scheduled Stops
Sure enough, at age five, I voluntarily got on the train to Addiction Central when the teenage boy in my neighborhood showed me the pornographic magazine and then molested me. I knew I shouldn’t be going into the orchard with that boy, and yet I did it anyway. I am responsible for that fateful decision. But instead of getting on a slow-moving train with a thousand stops along the way, I now realize that for me it was more like a speeding subway train rocketing through a dark tunnel–and there were no stops for me to get off at along the way. The only advice I received for dealing with the growing problem: just don’t think about it, pray more, read your scriptures more. Turns out that that addiction recovery formula has never worked for anyone–ever. If it did, it wouldn’t have been addiction.
A Mental Obsession With the Drug
There’s something that my friend and other LDS folks like her don’t understand about addiction, and because they don’t understand it, they genuinely think that addicts are imbeciles. Addicts just don’t “get it” like they do. In fact, they are the ones who don’t “get it.” What they don’t get is that the most difficult and dangerous part of addiction is not the drug but rather the mental obsession with the drug. They think that if we addicts just stayed away from the drug like smart people (i.e., themselves), we wouldn’t have all these problems. Again, that attitude has been contributing to the death of addicts because it oversimplifies the problem and the solution, thereby keeping addicts away from real recovery. It needs to stop.
For centuries or longer, people have watched in dismay as alcoholics drink their lives away. Why don’t they stay away from the bottle? Isn’t it obvious to them that alcohol is killing them? It wasn’t until the folks in Alcoholics Anonymous came along in the first half of the 20th century that the world finally figured out that alcohol was the secondary problem; the mental obsession with alcohol was the primary problem. Alcoholics kept drinking alcohol because they couldn’t stop thinking about drinking alcohol. Their addiction was quite simply a “mental obsession” with the feeling that comes from consuming alcohol.
All addicts have a “mental obsession” with their drug. When addiction consists of a mental obsession, you can see why telling an addict, “Just don’t think about it,” won’t work. When it’s a mental obsession, you can’t merely decide to stop thinking about it and have that be the end of it. A mental obsession is what addiction is all about!
If you want to consider the LDS views of accountability, responsibility and moral agency in the context of addiction, it might be helpful to look again at alcohol consumption. In the U.S., we have fairly strict drunk driving laws. If someone is arrested and convicted of drunk driving, society requires that he pay for his crime by a fine or jail time or both. But think about: the reason drunk driving is a crime is because drunk drivers are impaired and are more likely to hurt themselves or others and do property damage. We don’t punish people simply for drinking and then driving; we punish them for driving while impaired. Impairment is the safety threat. Impairment is the real danger.
No Free Pass for Impaired Drivers
But even though the driver was impaired when he chose to drive, we still hold him accountable for his behavior. If he hits and injures someone, he doesn’t get a free pass by saying, “Hey, I was impaired! It wasn’t my fault!” In the US, the drunk driver is responsible for his actions even though he was impaired. When it comes to drunk driving, impairment is a description of the problem but it is not an excuse for the behavior.
Few people realize that alcoholics who drink are actually doubly impaired. The first impairment comes with the mental obsession with the alcohol. The second impairment comes when the alcohol actually hits the brain by way of the bloodstream.
Doubly Drunk = Increasingly Impaired
Even fewer people understand that sex addicts can also be doubly drunk. The first impairment comes with the mental obsession with lust in any of its many forms, with one of the most commonly recognized forms being pornography. Sex addicts actually do become impaired by the mental obsession with lust. It is an understatement to say that the impairment keeps them from thinking clearly and making good decisions. Just ask the wife of a guy with a porn problem how spaced-out he seems at times–even when there’s no computer in sight. Then once they actually start consuming lust e.g., looking at porn), it’s just like consuming alcohol. Men, women and even children can and do become lust-drunk. When impaired by lust-drunkenness, the sex addict can have a difficult time saying no to more lust. Again, that’s an understatement.
Learning to Spot the Lust Drunk
Once my wife got into her recovery program in S-Anon, she acquired the ability to spot when I was becoming lust drunk. She knew that the mental obsession with lust was impairing my ability to function in life, at work, in the family and in the Church. Fortunately, through Sexaholics Anonymous, I also began to recognize my own lust-drunkenness and started doing something about it.
Addiction is a disease of secrecy and isolation. The solution is engaging in the opposite of secrecy and isolation: meetings, meetings, meetings; phone calls, phone calls, phone calls; sponsors, sponsors, sponsors; work the steps, work the steps, work the steps! The fastest, surest way to break the mental obsession with lust is to associate with other addicts who are further along in recovery–and then to pray and read the scriptures.
I think recovering addicts–individuals who actually admit to addiction and then do something about it–can be misunderstood when they say they have an addiction. By saying we’re addicted, we’re NOT saying we’re not responsible anymore for our behavior. To the contrary, we are describing our impairment and also acknowledging that if we don’t take responsibility and get into recovery, we will continue to suffer from the periodic impairment of lust-drunkenness and will continue to act out with porn and compulsive sexual behavior and may eventually die from our disease.
Why Didn’t My Train Offer 1,000 Stops?
I really don’t think I was responsible for my becoming an addict. It happened too fast when I was too young. I was never presented with a thousand options to stop along the way. Apologies to all those who adhere to the “Theory of the Thousand-Stop Train to Addiction Central.”
I then fought for decades against a mental obsession with lust on my own, in secrecy and isolation–and couldn’t see the steady progression of the disease. I was frequently impaired by lust-drunkenness and as a result made a lot of bad decisions. Nevertheless, like any alcoholic, cocaine addict or gambling addict, I was and remain responsible for my decisions and behavior even if I was impaired–and I was impaired a lot of the time.
Telling Addicts to “Stop Before You Get Addicted”
While some may consider this whole “addicted at five” idea to be either preposterous or heresy, I don’t apologize for it. From my corner, I’m still pretty annoyed that so many LDS General Conference talks over the years kept reassuring me that if I just stopped now, I still had a chance to avoid addiction–when I’d already been hooked for years!
But as for my part in it, although I wasn’t responsible for becoming an addict, I was most definitely responsible for remaining an addict outside recovery for nearly forty years. If I had really wanted to, I could have talked to a therapist about both my depression and compulsive sexual behavior. My pride kept me from doing so. When the internet came along and a flood of information about every subject became instantly available, I could have Googled “I can’t stop looking at porn. What’s wrong with me?” One little Google search! That’s all it would have taken, but I wouldn’t do it. My pride kept me away from recovery.
I have had to repent of all my sins and misdeeds, even (especially) the ones committed while I was impaired–completely toasted on lust. Yet I have never once asked Heavenly Father to give me a pass for a particular lust-focused act. It’s all on me. “No unclean thing can enter the kingdom of heaven.” I believe that. Like I said, impairment is a description, not an excuse.
Sending the 1,000-Stop Train to the Bone Yard
I advocate replacing the “Theory of the Thousand-Stop Train to Addiction Central” with the “Theory of the Non-Stop Subway to Addiction Central.” Turns out no one was ever riding on the 1,000-stop train anyway. Addiction happens long before that.
So how did I get off that subway train with no stops? Sticking with my tradition of complicated metaphors, I had to pull the emergency stop lever and then wait for the emergency crew to show me how to open the train doors, climb down to the platform, walk up the tunnel to the ladder, climb the ladder and then exit into the light of day through a manhole. Seriously, it’s complicated. Fortunately, the emergency crew consisted of other recovering addicts who were there to help me get things figured out–and a loving Father in Heaven who was also there to do for me what I couldn’t do for myself.
Remembering to Pray and Read My Scriptures
In early 2010, I not only took responsibility for my behavior, but also took responsibility for my recovery from addiction. The recovery plan included therapy, lots of Sexaholics Anonymous meetings, a sponsor, meeting with my bishop, working the 12 steps and making many changes to the way I live my life in order to eliminate lust. Oh, and I read my scriptures and pray a lot, too–just like I always have.
Recovery from addiction really is a great place to be. Happily, more and more Latter-day Saints are finding it.
Canada train image credit: By Savannah Grandfather [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Subway image credit: By Green Lane (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Amtrak train credit: By jpmueller99 from Shenandoah Valley of VA, USA [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Rusty train credit: By Vitaly Volkov from Dendermonde, Belgium (BVSstoomloco1-1) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons