We are suffering a pandemic of addiction in America, indicating an emotional and spiritual crisis of massive proportions. We are in the midst of an addiction plague that symptomatically, destructively affects our psychological and physical beings, our families, our neighbors and neighborhoods, our ethics, morality, economy, finances, and legislation. It threatens to tear asunder the woven fabric that connects us all—to our selves, to each other, and to God. And a concurrent tragedy is that we are blinded by the two components that allow addiction to thrive: denial and dissociation. We cannot see or attend to what stares us in the face. Addiction develops upon a foundation of denial about and dissociation from the reality of how we are created and what we are created to do.
A pandemic is a sickness or issue that has no boundaries, no racial, ethnic, religious, age, geographic, or socio-economic stopping point. A pandemic leaves no one immune. No one person in our country, child or adult, is unaffected by addiction that is eating us alive. Denial blinds us to seeing addiction as the actual culprit and dissociation suppresses the ability to recover from addiction, as it systematically, savagely, and apathetically damages us all. It disconnects our hearts from our own minds, isolates our hearts from each other, and separates us from the heart of God, because we aren’t present in heart to experience God.
We are surviving and, tragically, even defending a national cult of escaping the emotions of living, which is a contract that addiction fulfills if we sign it: “You will not have to deal with the emotions of life if you sign on with me,” addiction promises. The consequence of signing the contract is that we, at the same time, suppress the experience of emotional and spiritual connection, intimacy, and love in which we find perseverance and fulfillment. This is so in the churches and the country clubs, the penthouses and the poor houses, in urban crowding and rural separation.
Addiction is creating prisons of isolation by stealing us away from what makes us most human.
Addiction is creating prisons of isolation by stealing us away from what makes us most human—that is, being connected to how we are created for relationship of heart with our selves, each other and God. And relationship necessitates that we be able to face and feel life on life’s terms. As addiction and its consequences sever the connections to our hearts, it robs us of the multiplication of whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy—that which we are created to create.
For the past 20 years neuroscience has been proving what has been spoken in ancient words for centuries. We are created as highly intuitive emotional and spiritual creatures, created to do one thing in this life—live fully. And we cannot do so unless we are emotionally and spiritually connected to our own hearts, the hearts of others, and the heart of God. All long-term recovering addicts know this reality and the truth of the before and after experience. Their stories are a witness to this reality. They all have found that emotionally and spiritually, addiction is an impaired attempt to find a full life. It is an impaired attempt to find a full life without having to pay the price of feeling all that life requires one to feel. It is an intolerance for vulnerability.
Beyond the core issue of addiction having an emotional and spiritual genesis is the psychological effect. Psychologically, addiction is an unintended, obsessive-compulsive set of actions to change the way one feels, over which one is powerless. Because of trauma (harmed into emotional “frozenness”) and ignorance (“not knowing” the heart), no one trapped in addiction is able to process the emotions of life on life’s terms. It is not a habit to break, but more an enslavement to be liberated from.
No one volunteers for slavery. But when one cannot find life as they were created to have it, slavery is inevitable. Whether enslavement to approval seeking or performance, to Silicon Valley products, to anxiety, to narcotics prescribed by a physician, or to heroin purchased in back rooms.
The word itself, addictus, is a reference to slavery. Its etymology references Roman law. It meant the right of a Roman citizen to have ownership of another human being who was not Roman. For “all the glory that was Rome,” it was much more an empire of tyranny, which valued only itself. Addiction “values” only its own ends—feeding itself by eating the person it controls. It destroys the human being who was in the beginning only attempting to find a way to avoid the pain of being human—psychological enslavement. And it detrimentally impacts those people who live near its powerful affects—psychological enslavement.
Addiction is an impaired attempt to find a full life without having to pay the price of feeling all that life requires one to feel.
Addiction is also an impairment that becomes a horrific sickness, stated clearly by the American Medical Association in 1957 to fit the definition of disease: A morbid process, of known or unknown origin, which has a characteristic chain of symptoms, which are progressive, chronic, with acute episodes, and often fatal. So addiction at root is an emotional and spiritual impairment. It then develops into subtle or overt obsessive-compulsive actions. It finally becomes a deadly disease. We know now that stress in the performer-addict can kill much like heroin can kill its victim.
Addiction’s financial impact alone is enormous. In 2010, $249 billion was spent dealing with accidents, DUIs, and medical bills for diseases caused by alcohol alone, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
We often don’t recognize because of our ignorance or have the ability because of trauma to face our emotional and spiritual makeup. No one plans to become addicted, and yet millions are addicted and cannot identify the actual problem. Denial and dissociation have led us to multiple forms of rationalization and distraction to avoid facing the actual problem, such as group and societal enabling, scientific conclusions drawn from poor hypotheses, the hubris of ignorance, counterfeit answers to trauma, the profit of distraction, and more.
No one plans to become addicted, and yet millions are addicted and cannot identify the actual problem.
In spite of all of the “public awareness,” the vicious cycle of denial, dissociation, rationalization, distraction, and addiction is moving faster and growing wider, making the impact of addiction more insidious and powerful. As a result, we continue to paint the outside of our houses (addressing counterfeit solutions), while wearing earplugs to block the quiet movements of termites eating away within the walls that will eventually bring the house down (avoiding facing the actual problem).
Consider the impact of addiction with some hard numbers, while remembering that most addiction is kept in secret through the defenses that hide it. That fact means that hard numbers minimize the reality.
According to recent statistics gathered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 23.5 million Americans over the age of 12 cast about in daily life addicted to alcohol or illegal drugs. That number does not include the millions of other Americans who are addicted to prescribed medications. The opioid epidemic, for example, according to Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, has partially been caused by a “healthcare system that sought to minimize pain and suffering. Physicians were taught that those with pain wouldn’t get addicted to pain medication.” She goes on to say that “those beliefs were completely wrong.” As of this writing, Americans use 95% of the world’s production of narcotics. That same healthcare system over prescribes other profoundly addictive substances like anti-anxiety and sleep medications by the millions. The healthcare system’s temporary solutions can lead to long-term negatives.
In 2017, a pornography corporation that keeps its own data, Pornhub, states that 28.5 billion visits to its sites occurred—81 million daily average visits per day world wide, 50,000 searches per minute and 800 per second. In 2016, 91,980, 225, 000 billion videos were viewed, which is 12.5 videos for every person on earth. In 2014, 78.9 billion videos were viewed, which is 11 videos for every person on earth. The sex industry holds millions of people in its grip through sex addiction. The numbers are evidently climbing. Pornhub is just one of many businesses operating in the sex industry.
Millions of people also struggle with other addictions such as obsessive- compulsive food disorders, work addiction disorders, gambling, power, appearance, exercise, perfectionism, and other process addictions. When thrown into the mix with the big three of alcohol, drugs, and sex, the numbers are staggering.
Speaking only of the 23.5 million alcohol and drug addicts’ (saying “only” about 23.5 million people seems absurd) impact on others, research indicates that for every one person addicted to alcohol or drugs, 3 to 4 other people in relationship with the addict experience life damaging effects. Any person connected with someone who has an addiction for an extended period of time will suffer some of the characteristics of post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Predominantly family members and friends directly suffer the emotional and relational, if not the physical and financial, impact of addiction. The deleterious effect upon this group centers on trauma, which, at core, suppresses the capacity for emotional and spiritual development. Again, denial and dissociation are the two prominent defenses one uses to survive the impact of addiction. Think of the effects upon children alone.
Trauma essentially acts as a catalyst for a person to suffer some form of reactivity to their circumstances, rather than healthy emotional responses. Trauma reactions create understandable defenses to block future vulnerabilities that create new trauma. The reactions symptomatically hide a person’s vulnerability to emotional expression and relational capacity for connection, intimacy, and love. Trauma victims often develop distortions, distress, and distrust in their own sense of worth and acceptance, thus struggle with a sense of belonging and mattering. More simply put, they believe that they have to perform to have worth and acceptance. They have to earn love, and rarely allow themselves truly to trust love when it is given. These characteristics, likewise, reside inside every addict at the core of their own emotional and spiritual heartache.
People traumatized by addiction symptoms often suffer the compulsion of trying to find a full life without knowing how to risk feeling all that is required to live a vibrant relational life. They also suffer from denial about and dissociation from the cause of their suffering. They are set up to develop addiction or other tragic problems. Symptoms that express a need to hide or keep control extend into a myriad of complicating results, such as stress illnesses, anxiety disorders, depression, and, of course, addiction itself, as each person loses connection to their emotional and spiritual makeup.
Addiction predicts the continuation of the next addiction and/or many other life-stifling consequences. Addiction and its consequences take control of the emotional vulnerability and “neediness” required to live ably and fully in true relationship with others and God.
Returning to the impact of hard numbers, by multiplying the minimal number of 3 people impacted by addiction times the 23.5 million alcohol and drug addicts only, that number is 70.5 million people harmed emotionally, spiritually, and thus relationally, by people trapped in their own emotional, spiritual, and relational maelstrom of addiction. By adding the 23.5 million addicted sufferers to the 70.5 million set up to develop highly charged difficulties, one can see the power of addiction and its devastating consequences. The number is 94 million people who are presently suffering emotional, spiritual, and relational distortions, distress, and distrust—all connected to this one common denominator of alcohol and drugs alone.
That number of 94 million expands exponentially when we begin to consider the impact of all the other addictions. Addiction of any kind harms the addict and others similarly. It takes away the capacity for emotional and spiritual connection, intimacy, and love in the addict and detrimentally impacts those in “relationship” with the addict. It sets them up to disconnect from their own emotional and spiritual beings.
No matter how much we attempt to address our personal, family, community, and national problems without dealing with addiction, we will fail. Addiction and its impact is America’s number one internal problem. Ninety four million people in acute distress is a pandemic. And the number is much, much higher when we include the other “subtler” addictions.
We are a nation of people addicted, and a nation of people in denial and dissociated. It has become an ongoing repetition of retracing a circle: We cannot see the circle because of denial and dissociation, which protects us from the emotional vulnerability of ignorance and trauma, which exacerbates the “need” for relief from internal stress, which acts as a catalyst towards sickness and addiction, about which we are in denial and dissociation, which promotes addiction. And on it goes.
Recovery from addiction requires a return to relationship.
We must see and feel our way beyond the tragic comfort of denial, and we must face and feel the pain of re-associating with how we are created. We must see and feel, face and feel our way into living with the capacity for full relationship. Doing so requires the vulnerability of receiving and offering connection, intimacy, and love, even the love that does not tolerate the denial of addiction and its impact. Recovery from addiction requires a return to relationship.