No Escapes: Rethinking addiction

Peter Hitchens recently got into some trouble for questioning modern psychology’s concept of addiction. Hitchens essentially argued that addiction talk rids the addict of responsibility. Their addiction is a desease; addicts are the victims of their addiction. Hitchen’s argues that there is something wrong with that way of describing addiction, that anything can be an addiction and thus people from alcohol abusers to serial fornicators are being controlled by something other than themselves.

From a Christian perspective this understanding of addiction is obviously problematic. Can God hold someone responsible for being a victim of some addiction? Yes that person did say some terrible things, but it was the alcohol talking, not them. So how can they be guilty? Can we say an addict is sinning in their addiction? Obviously they are responsible or else there are lots of people with an apparently legitimate excuse for why they did and said certain things, and God would be unjust in treating them as if they had a choice in the matter.

Addiction rhetoric seems to be a method of scapegoating, making the addiction the one responsible, not the person. Yet, how did they become an addict? Why did they choose drugs, alcohol, sex or whatever else? They did choose it, didn’t they?

Taking a closer look at what is going on in someones head when they choose to do something like get high on narcotics, they don’t start off feeling as if they have to. It is a choice, but why make that choice? Why do people watch so much television? Many bad habits are in simplest terms modes of escape. From needing to “veg” in front of a screen, to smoking marijuana to shooting up heroin, all are methods of temporary escape from reality. We go to watch comedians because apparently our reality isn’t something to laugh about, so we need the comedian to take us somewhere else, to take us somewhere there is laughter.

So what if this world is too difficult for tv or comedians to take us away? If we want an escape we need something more potent, something that takes us by force to another place. That is the role of mind altering substances and activities. The peer pressure of “live a little” implies that sober mindedness and living are somehow opposed. What is really being said is that sober mindedness and enjoyment of being alive don’t go together. If you are sober, then you are aware of your reality, and reality will bog you down, reality will keep you solemn, reality is a hindrance to dancing and laughter, we must escape to somewhere else to have these pleasures, and drugs are a good getaway car.

Yet are they really? Reality doesn’t go away when someone gives in to their escape, only the awareness of reality is absent. Playing video games instead of doing homework just means doing the homework at the last minute, or not at all. Getting drunk after losing a loved one just means you’ll be mourning with a hangover. Parents who neglect their children because they are getting high are a clear example of this. The children are still there, they still really need their parents to take care of them, but it is the parents who have escaped, and they haven’t escaped reality, but the awareness of reality. Escapes don’t change reality, but they often make reality more difficult to deal with. Perhaps worse, escapes make one useless in helping others deal with reality. The alcoholic husband doesn’t in the least help his wife deal with living, instead he makes living that much more difficult. He doesn’t help his wife with her difficulties by escaping, rather he becomes her difficulties.

Addiction then should be understood as compulsive escapism. When someone finds their mode of escaping, they will be often compelled to take that way out. Addicts are escape artists who can’t get enough of leaving their reality, even if the leaving is a temporary mirage, a hullicination that is at best a complete waste of time and at worse an incredibly destructive choice, or both.

We are all guilty of compulsive escapism, it’s just that most of our methods of escape are more socially acceptable than doing narcotics. Someone who watches tv to the neglect of their family can still be considered a functional citizen, and would likely pass a psych analysis with flying colors. If their family falls apart because of their escapism and resultant neglect of their relationships, nobody is going to actually blame their tv watching (except maybe the wife). Everyone is an escape artist, it’s just some escapes are less noticeable than others. Some escapes look like a drug addict stumbling on the sidewalk, and others look like a father who shouldn’t dare be interrupted while the game is on, never mind that his children are disrespecting their mother.

The answer to escapism is layed out by Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Solomon holds no punches in saying repeatedly that living is like trying to shepherd the wind, but the duty of man is to enjoy what God has given, fear God and keep his commandments. Reality is harsh. Reality goes left when you told it to go right, and Solomon’s answer is enjoy what God has given you as from his hand, and obey what he says. This advice from Solomon can be summed up in faith, hope and love. Faith that God has and will give good gifts, hope that those who fear God will be exalted with eternal life, and a life of love that sums up obedience to the commandments. Those three are the cures to compulsive escapism; faith, hope and love are diametrically opposed to escaping this reality. Faith, hope and love are grounded in reality, and cause us to dive deeper in. We can deal with this reality when we have the strong confidence that those who endure in faith, hope and love don’t need to escape from reality, because they look forward to reality being made new through the powerful reign of Christ in this life and the next, which means they don’t just look forward to it, but they can see it now, and want to be a part of making it happen.

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