Current Issue

Why do people do things they know are harmful? When you see a man toting an oxygen bottle around the mall with tubes going into his nostrils and he’s smoking a cigarette, stop and think. Why is he doing something he knows is the cause of his inability to breathe? It doesn’t make sense. He would probably advise others to quit, but at the same time he’s unable to correct his own problem.

You scratch your head and wonder. Maybe the person is just not very smart. But is it a lack of intelligence or common sense?

When people drink alcohol or smoke, they’re taking a drug. If you ask people who do those things why, they answer, “Because I like it!” “It wakes me up.” “It calms me down.” And so on. Be it conscious or unconscious, dangerous or otherwise, people do what they do for specific reasons.

The study of behaviors and specifically of addictions is interesting. Addictive behaviors are neither normal nor ordinary; they’re often compulsive and self-destructive. And while it might seem as though people would naturally limit their behaviors to things that give pleasure and avoid pain, those who have addictive tendencies or destructive behaviors don’t function that way.

What makes an addict?

Addicts go to great effort to obtain and use their drugs in spite of the consequences. For example, professional athletes are paid millions of dollars to play football or baseball, ice-hockey or to run, with the knowledge that they’ll be tested for drugs. They’re aware that if drugs are found in their system, they face the probability of suspension from their jobs, a loss of sponsorships, and the possibility of expulsion from their sport. The same athletes will get caught with drugs in their blood, often more than once, and ultimately lose their incomes because of the use of cocaine or some other drug. Some people have exhausted their financial means in order to live the high life and to support their drug use.

So put yourself in their position. Someone offers you your dream house, and all you have to do is avoid alcohol. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. If it were easy, people would make the correct decision very time.

People (millions every day) use drugs or engage in other addictive behaviors, knowing they will—not maybe—eventually face consequences. There is nothing normal about an addictive behavior. It isn’t simply a deviation from the norm.

Just as people use drugs for different reasons, they also respond differently to drugs. Some say that the use of alcohol is liberating—it seems to set them free—or really takes the “edge off” the stress of a hard day at work. Two people who look very similar may react completely different when given the same substance.

Most people have the same opportunity to use alcohol; it’s in hotels and shops everywhere. Yet some develop problems with it, and others don’t.

People who have addiction problems are often thought of as deficient in character, lacking in moral fiber, or even deviant. This is often the case among conservative religious groups, where substance use is prohibited.

Revealing a crisis

You may recognize some of the telltale signs, because you’ve seen the behaviors either in your own personal life or in the lives of others. You may have heard of someone waking during the night and driving a considerable distance just to purchase a pack of cigarettes or pornographic material, because they can’t afford to be seen doing so in their local community. People with addictions will go to great lengths to satisfy the needs of their cravings.

Addictions come in many forms. There’s nothing wrong or immoral about computers. But computer addiction has recently been recognized as a problem for many. Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack, an expert in this area, created a list of features common to computer addicts:

  • A mother has difficulty getting a child to play outdoors, as computer games occupy after-school time.
  • A husband finds his wife increasingly neglecting family duties or irritable at family gatherings, and the phone bill to an online service number has become astronomical.
  • Someone connects to the Internet at 10 p.m., then discovers it’s dawn and they’re still at their monitor.
  • A child’s grades fall, and the teacher notes that they’re falling asleep in class.
  • A department head stays late each night to meet deadlines. In-house monitoring of computer use reveals frequent accessing of inappropriate sites, including gambling and pornography.

Recently, Internet-based sexual addition has become an enormous problem. Dr. Dana Putnam maintains a Web site for individuals who are concerned about their Internet-related sexual interests, where they can take a test to measure the seriousness of their possible addiction.

People are suffering from various forms of dangerous behaviors that are out of control. These same people often find it necessary to hide their problems, as they can’t afford to have these behaviors known to others in their surroundings.

The research

Understanding the brain chemistry associated with addiction is a science producing new insights almost daily. Research in this area suggests that there are two different systems in the brain responsible for “liking” and “wanting.” Researchers believe that drugs of addiction primarily activate the “wanting” system. It is for this reason that drugs can cause very intense cravings.

Other research suggests that the brain has a specific system responsible for reinforcing. Stimulation of this system, which occurs with the ingestion of an array of drugs and possibly even with exposure to pornographic images, causes the brain to release a drug similar to heroin or morphine. Specifically, drugs appear to stimulate the release of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure.

This suggests that people take substances or drugs to stimulate the reinforcing mechanism in the brain that will result in a pleasurable response. In other words, people take drugs to gain pleasure, in spite of the consequences of their drug use.

Scientists have studied whether or not addictions are related to genetics. They found that different strains of laboratory mice and rats differed in their use of alcohol. Both alcohol- preferring and alcohol-avoiding strains of rats have been selectively bred in laboratory settings. Such studies have led to the conclusion that there is significant evidence of a genetic contribution to the risk of becoming an alcoholic. Males who have a family history of alcoholism are at an increased risk of becoming an alcoholic themselves. This genetic tendency isn’t limited to alcohol; further studies on different strains of mice and rats have demonstrated different preferences for cocaine.

Cycle of despair

Whatever the addiction, whether it has identifiable genetic roots or not, a typical cycle tends to emerge. It looks something like this:

1. No one intends to become an addict, but many do. There’s no intention to self-destruct and ruin health, career, and relationships.

2. Addicts lie to everyone in their lives. They live a false, concealed life of deceit.

3. Things start missing. As the problem escalates, the amount of deceit and dishonesty increases.

4. Addicts are often intelligent and creative people who appear to have a future, which adds to their problem. People around them see their potential strengths and deny the visible weaknesses, hoping that eventually their strengths will overcome their weaknesses.

5. Addicts typically enter into their affliction in an attempt to compensate for a personal deficiency or negative life situation. They’re often depressed, unhappy, or incapable of dealing with their life situations, which may include the loss of a loved one or job. This causes the individual to seek help in the form of a drug, alcohol, or sex. The cycle begins.

6. The behaviors are the painkiller. Addicts avert emotional and physical pain by engaging in their behavior, thereby gaining a temporary escape from life. When they’re unable to cope with some aspect of reality, they go to their addictive behavior for a temporary escape.

7. The more a person uses their drug, the more inflated the problem becomes. More problems result from repeated use. The behavior becomes the center of their universe. Soon they find a need to use continuously and will do anything to get “high.” They are now caught in the cycle.

8. They become difficult to communicate with and find it hard to focus on a topic for even 20 seconds; they withdraw and begin to exhibit behaviors associated with addiction.

9. The more the person uses their drug, the more guilt begins to drive their lives. This results in depression, discontent, and despair.

10. Now their use begins to affect their personal relationships, their job, their finances, and anything of value in their lives. Their use has less to do with getting “high” and more to do with avoiding withdrawal.


Addictions are both a medical and spiritual problem. Many forms of treatment are available, with some better than others. One is cognitive behavioral therapy where the addict is taught to identify the problem, to solve the problem, and to learn coping skills to prevent relapse.

Don’t accept nonprofessional speculation. Seek expert counseling. Find out what is available in your community and get treatment.

One very successful addiction program is known as “the Twelve Steps.” Originally developed to help alcoholics to overcome alcoholism, it has now been adapted to help people overcome addictions to narcotics, gambling, sex, destructive eating, and many others.

Much of the reason for the success of the Twelve Steps is its emphasis on God and the use of spiritual tools for recovery from addiction. Addicts are taught to recognize their powerlessness over their addiction, to surrender to God, to identify the character defects that drive their addiction, and to make amends where they have injured others.

If you are addicted, or even if you only think you might be, take action now. Ask a Christian physician for referrals to both medical and spiritual resources. But, most of all, remember there is hope for you, whatever your addiction!

Coping With Addictions

by Gary Hopkins
From the September 2007 Signs  

Computer Addiction

The psychological symptoms

  • Having a sense of wellbeing or euphoria while at the computer
  • Inability to stop the activity
  • Craving more and more time at the computer Neglect of family and friends
  • Feeling empty, depressed and irritable when not at the computer
  • Lying to employees and family about activities Problems with school or job

  • The physical symptoms

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Dry eyes
  • Backaches
  • Eating irregularities, such as skipping meals
  • Failure to attend to personal hygiene
  • Sleep disturbance, change in sleep pattern
  • —Dr Orzack

The telltales

During the middle of the 20th century, the medical community realized something very abnormal existed in people who had alcohol abuse problems. Eventually criteria for substance dependence were defined as maladaptive patterns of substance use, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by three (or more) of the following, occurring at any time in the same 12-month period.

1. Intolerance, as defined by either of the following: A need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect; markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.

2. Withdrawal, as manifested by one of the following: The characteristic withdrawal syndrome of the substance; the same or a closely related substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal of the symptoms.

3. Growing use of the substance, often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.

4. A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use.

5. Spending a great deal of time in activities necessary to obtain the substance (for example, visiting multiple doctors or driving long distances); use of the substance (such as chain-smoking) or recovering from its effects.

6. Continuing substance use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or provoked by the substance (for example, someone continuing using cocaine despite recognition of cocaine-induced depression, or continuing drinking despite recognition that an ulcer was made worse by alcohol consumption).

If you exhibit all or even some of these traits, seek medical and spiritual help.