Is it a Problem?)
For the last year I’ve been attending a 12-step group for lust and pornography addiction. Every couple weeks we will have a new attendee who feels embarrassed about being present. Quite frequently they’ll introduce themselves with something like “Hey, so…I don’t really know if I have an ‘addiction,’ per se, but I just figured I ought to come here and see if it feels like it might be beneficial for me…”
Let’s take a closer look at one of these individuals. We’ll make up one called Pete. Now Pete knows that his behavior isn’t what he wants it to be, but he’s uncomfortable with the notion that he is chronically or perpetually enslaved to that behavior. Pete’s willing to admit that he has a “problem,” but it seems a stretch to classify it as an addiction.
When Pete thinks of the word “addict” he imagines a grizzled man sleeping on a park bench, or a nervous kid hawking his mother’s jewelry in a back alley, or a young woman selling her body for drugs. He imagines people who are ruining themselves mind, body, and soul, who are completely out-of-control, who have severed all ties to anyone that used to love them. Those are all clearly addicts, but surely Peter, who goes to church, has a family, and pays his bills couldn’t be an addict…could he?
Choice vs Compulsion)
Another key element that keeps Pete from identifying as an addict is the matter of choice. An addict is defined by his inability to choose, he his compelled to act, even to his own destruction. But while Pete doesn’t like all of the things that he does, he still feels that it is a choice when he does them. His behavior is problematic, but he doesn’t believe it is out-of-control. He does these things because he wants to do them. Granted, he doesn’t always want to do them, sometimes he very much wishes that he didn’t do them at all, but sometimes he does want to do them and that’s when he “makes the choice” to do so. He’s not saying that that’s a good thing, but he does say that he isn’t being forced against his will.
One might ask Pete that if he still retains free choice in this area, then why doesn’t he make a firm and final decision that he isn’t going back to that behavior anymore? If at all possible, try to catch Pete when he is feeling a strong desire to act out and ask him then if he is still in control.
“Yes,” Pete answers us. “I really am in control. I can choose to do this, and I can choose not to. In fact, I think I’ll make both choices here and now. I’ll choose to go ahead and do this just one more time, and then I’ll choose that I’m done for good!”
“Could you choose to be done before this last time instead of after?”
“Of course…but I don’t want to. I want to choose to do it this one time for the last time, and then be done forever.”
“You say that you do not want to choose to stop just yet. In general, are you able to choose to do things that you do not want to?”
“Yes, of course. I choose to do unpleasant things when I have to all the time. I go to work when I don’t feel like it, I help my neighbor shovel his driveway, I skip the dessert line if I’ve had too much to eat. I can choose to do things that I don’t want.”
“Then choose to do this thing that you don’t want. Choose that the last time you acted out was the last time. Choose that you won’t act out again now even though you want to.”
“I…don’t want to.”
“But you have just said that you can, even if you don’t want to. You’ve already claimed that you are in control, but what does that even mean unless you can choose in spite of what you want? That’s what control means. So choose to stop now, even though you do not want to, and that is the only way to prove that you really are in control here.”
How Pete squirms! For as unsure and out-of-place as he felt at his first twelve-step meeting, he soon starts to realize that he’s just as crazy as all the “real” addicts there. Usually by a newcomer’s third or fourth meeting he’s willing to throw in the towel and admit that his “little problem” is actually his slave driver!
A Needed Perspective)
And frankly, that’s why we need to go to a twelve-step group. It provides just this sort of well-meaning confrontation which shows us our own inconsistency. The sooner we go to group, the sooner we feel pushed to give up our pet vice. The sooner we try to give up our vice, the sooner our illusion of self-control is dismantled. It is only when we try to resist against our vices that we feel the hooks they already have in us. We only ever felt we were in control because we had never tried to make a choice that went against the script.