Disease or Decision. What is Addiction? A Somewhat Religious View

Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness   Nancy Virden (c)2013

photo-24774997-businessman-sleeping-on-his-laptopThere are so many complex reasons for addiction it does not matter why it happened.  Really, it doesn’t.  The present concern is that someone is losing their life because of it, and likely hurting many others in the process. So, addiction happened. Now what?

A disease is biological. OK, we can all agree on that. A decision is mental. I think we can agree on that. When a decision kicks off a negative biological reaction, is it the result or cause of disease?

Joe had his first drink at age 10. By 17 he could not stop. By 33 he was sleeping in gutters, and even the homeless shelters were asking him to leave. Did a 10 year-old have a disease or were his problems caused by the unfortunate decision of an adult to grant him alcohol as a minor? And was he just perpetuating his alcoholism by refusing to quit?

Jane first went on a food binge when she was 12 years old. It was the only way to receive attention from her parents who had little to say until she gained weight.  She hated that she was growing heavier but continued to compulsively overeat.  By 17 she was certain everyone everywhere was sneering at her behind her back.  By 32 she had been on every diet she’d seen advertised, and given up on the battle and herself.

Was Joe born an alcoholic? Was Jane a  food addict before she could even speak?  I think we are tempted to try and explain everything that does not make sense. It is easier to blame the Joes and Janes of the world than to think alcoholism or God forbid, food addiction,  could happen by chance to any one of us.

This is how I understand it. Someone has a drink, and when it is done he craves another. The biological disease of alcoholism has been triggered by the first drink and now he goes home thinking about it and has a tough time waiting for his next chance.  He begins to drink more frequently and at odd hours. He may be an alcoholic. Difference between a hard drinker and an alcoholic is that the non-alcoholic can stop.

Here’s another example. A young co-ed drinks shots of vodka. She likes it as it numbs throughout her body. She goes home and thinks about it and longs for more.

After a few experiences like this she realizes she is growing obsessed with alcohol.  She notices that she never drinks out of thirst; her only reason is to experience the numbing of her emotional pain.  So she quits. Never having physical withdrawal difficulties, she believes she is home-free. Only now it is decades later and she still thinks about those drinks, longs for more, and is tempted to buy some when her emotions are strong. Does she have the disease of alcoholism?

Addiction in any form is the abuse of something originally intended for good, but it is not necessarily a sin or even a character problem to be an addict.  My mother used to say that if we never have the first of some vice, it cannot take over our lives. Sure, but we cannot avoid everything that can become addictive.

At the treatment center I was in there were groups for many types of addiction. I observed that when an addict tried to get clean in one area, they often turned to another type of unhealthy behavior to fill the void.  Should we then never take any medication? Never eat?

According to St. Paul of the New Testament, each one of our bodies is the temple of the Holy Spirit who was given to us by God.* If we are then experiencing emptiness, it makes sense to fill that pit with the One who wants to live there and fill us up with himself.  Our search for any thing or person other than God  to fill us and make us whole, is futile.

How we become filled with God has to begin with a first step toward willingness. Jesus said, “I am the way, the Truth and the life. No one goes to the Father except through me.” Now that’s lunacy, arrogance, false, or  right. The first step is willingness to believe.

No religion or prayer or faith is a “cure” for addiction. We are born with biological tendencies, weaknesses, and diseases that can be triggered by choices, whether those choices were right, wrong, or in-between.  No one knows ahead of time who will develop an addiction based on the disease they carry in them.

I believe we can experience addiction by accident because our bodies react to a normal situation in an abnormal way.  Normal people without a particular disease (alcoholism, food addiction, etc) will not have the same reaction to the exact same choices an addict makes. For the addict there is a biological reaction and mental obsession that go hand-in-hand. It’s an “I have to have this” kind of pull, and addicts are powerless to stop.

Regardless of the why addiction starts, the foundation of complete recovery is in learning to lean on God,  and actively seeking support from and offering support to other addicts. Filling that emotional void with God and asking him for his will and the power to carry it out is the one recovery plan that will permanently be successful if we choose it one day at a time.


Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Overeaters Anonymous (OA)


NOTE: I am not a trained or licensed mental health professional. I am not a doctor. I speak only from my experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help can be yours.

picture from Qulaitystockphotos.com

*(1 Corinthians 6:19, 20).

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