We hear so much about various addictions -- alcohol, drugs, gambling, smoking, sex, food, spending, shopping, internet -- that the word "addiction" has almost lost its meaning. Is everyone addicted?
The definition is simple. The ultimate distinction between man and animals is not that man is more intelligent, but that animals are creatures that have no choice over their behavior. They must do whatever their bodies demand. They cannot choose what they should do. Man has the ability of self-control, to choose one's behavior, even in defiance of physical urges.
Losing the ability to choose is losing the uniqueness of being a human being.
If a person loses one's ability to choose and is dominated by urges one cannot control, one is indeed an addict. (An exception to this is OCD -- obsessive compulsive disorder -- where the loss of control appears to be a psychiatric disorder in the anxiety or affective group of conditions.) Losing the ability to choose is losing the uniqueness of being a human being, and robs one of the dignity of being human. We pride ourselves on liberty and view slavery as evil because it dehumanizes a person. And that is exactly what happens when we relinquish our ability to choose.
Addiction invariably begins surreptitiously. No one decides, "I am going to become an alcoholic," or "I am going to become a compulsive gambler." For reasons as yet unknown, some people have greater vulnerability to addiction than others. Certain acts apparently trigger a "pleasure center" in the brain, which then demands repetition of the act. The person who is vulnerable to addiction may not recognize what is happening, and this denial may persist even when others point it out to him.
Given the addict's inability to recognize the problem, it is imperative that those close to the addict -- spouse, parent, child, sibling -- seek guidance from a competent addiction therapist on what steps the family can take that may help the addict accept help. The addict's sincere promise to abstain cannot be given credence. Without proper help, the course of an addiction is invariably progressive, with ruinous and possibly catastrophic results to oneself and family.
Addicts may indeed have psychological problems, but these cannot be effectively addressed as long as the addiction is active. Control of the addiction is rarely achieved solely by psychotherapy. Participation in a support group comprised of people who have successfully overcome their addiction, such as the 12-step groups, is vital. Psychotherapy is a valuable adjunct.
Insofar as addiction is concerned, an ounce of prevention is worth many tons of cure. What can be done to prevent addiction? Especially, what can we do to protect our children from falling into this deadly trap?
Whatever the addiction is, the addict is seeking something that would provide two things: pleasure and quickly. If you had a drug that gives the greatest "high" in the world but the effect does not occur for 72 hours, you could not even give away the drug. The addict seeks an immediate effect.
Let us see what modern culture is like. When I was a child in the 1930's, there were many hardships. Before antibiotics, the average life expectancy was 40; now it's 80! Communication was difficult. Three days by train from New York to Los Angeles; five hours today. Four weeks to Israel; 10 hours today. Work was physical and many workplaces were miserable. Today's workplace, by comparison, is a spa. When the heat was torrid, one would sweat, but today the push of a button cools the house for you.
Television uninterruptedly tells us what we must do to get more pleasure out of life. We have become one of the most hedonistic societies in history. This was formulated in the sixties with the motto, "If it feels good, do it!"
The Jewish world is not far behind. On Passover we used to eat just meat and potatoes. Today you can have every delicacy, even Pesachdig pizza! Unfortunately, the motto in the Jewish world is, "If it feels good and it's kosher, do it!"
Technology has eroded our tolerance for delay. Instant messaging, jet travel, cars that go from 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds. No one is willing to wait for anything.
Pursuit of pleasure and instant gratification -- that characterizes the adult world. Where is a 14-year-old going to get this? Why, with a drug, of course! And peer pressure is powerful.
What can we do to battle this ethos? There is no reason to avoid enjoying things, but we must demonstrate to our children that there is more to life than pursuit of pleasure. Torah observance must go beyond keeping kosher. If we want to give our children this message, we must live a life of Torah character traits. Control of anger, consideration and respect for others, giving of our time and energy for deeds of kindness, and all the other desirable traits in the works of mussar, self development.
Parents must learn how to relate to their children so that they will wish to obey their parents out of love and respect, not control.
We must make the home a citadel of true shalom bayit, domestic harmony. Many of the youngsters on drugs describe a home of parental bickering, each parent insisting on getting what he/she wants out of the marriage. Parents must learn how to relate to their children so that they will wish to obey their parents out of love and respect rather than by control.
All addictions are ruinous. A person with good self-esteem will feel "I don't want to do anything that will impinge on my self-esteem. I won't drink or use drugs because I am too good for that." Parents must develop their own self-esteem and seek ways to help their children develop theirs.
You can't scare kids away from alcohol or drugs. It doesn't work. They have to not want to drink or use drugs.
Yes, marijuana is a dangerous drug, and its danger is increased because it does not have the dramatic consequences of heroin or cocaine, but it slowly poisons the brain and deteriorates one's character.
Given the evidence of the "pleasure center" in the brain, the difference between physical and psychological addiction is a moot point. Alcohol, drugs, food, gambling and sex all stimulate the "pleasure center," and behavior can become a physical addiction.
The internet has bred a new addiction. While there is no sharp demarcation of how many hours/week is overuse, a practical approach is that when spending time on the internet detracts from eating, sleeping and healthy family relationships, one has a problem. In children, excessive use of electronic games may seriously impair their school work.
A particularly toxic addiction is internet pornography. Men and women may realize that this is damaging, but cannot resist the urge. Wives have lost respect for their husbands, who may show greater passion for the internet images than for them. A common complaint by the wife is, "I feel betrayed."
Whatever the addiction, it is invariably progressive and generally cannot be overcome by will-power alone. One must seek out therapists who have developed competence in treating addiction.
You can visit Gateways, the facility founded by Rabbi Twerski, at www.GatewayRehab.org. They will bring in kosher meals, as will the Caron Foundation near Philadelphia, who also have an observant chaplain.