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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Perception and Addiction

Let's return to the admonishment from yesterday:

"Kid, there's good news and bad news for you about this disease.  The good news is that this disease is a problem of perception.  The bad news is, that's a big %@#& problem!"

The disease of addiction is a disease that effects the addict's perceptions.  This problem of perception is complex, and both is affected by and enhances the physical reaction to the addictive substance/activity.

So, let's say we have a gambler.  He ingests nothing that would effect his biochemistry, yet his perception of gambling is such that he receives a biochemical high when he engages in the activity.  A heroin addict, on the other hand, definitely gets a chemical effect from his usage, which is enhanced by his perception.

We know that the perception of either heroin or gambling varies from person to person because there are plenty of people who try both and do not become addicted.  However, when the addictive condition is present, activities/substances can become addictive.  What's more, one addiction can be traded for another: addicts can often 'quit drinking' by using marijuana or prescription medications or even indulging in some activity.

It is his perception of pleasure that fuels the addict's pursuit.  Now, this 'pleasure' is often nothing more than an escape from his pain and resembles nothing of what normal people would consider pleasurable (opium dens and crack houses are not the lap of luxury), but when the addict's perceptions have been sufficiently twisted, the pigpen seems like a good idea.

This is why recovery is described as an 'awakening.'  Just like the Prodigal Son remembers his father's love and his perception of the tolerable circumstances of the pigpen changes, so the addict must have an awakening that changes his perception of pleasure in his disease.

Once the perception of the object of the disease, the addictive substance/activity, changes, then the addict is able to examine potential alternatives.  In the disease without such an awakening, it is impossible to interrupt this circular relationship between the perception and the brain's reaction to the perception.

This latter effect is important: when the person perceives pleasure, his brain releases hormones that enhance the experience.  The body is commanded to relax, which is kind of an 'all clear' alarm for the system.  The experience of pleasure int he chemical sense then goes back to the brain and reinforces the perception of the activity as pleasurable.  

This is why an alcoholic will endure day after day of hangovers, and the food addict can receive exquisite delight in poor-quality snacks.  The perception of pleasure and the need for it is so intense as to utterly override reality.

The 'pleasure principle' as it were is not confined to addicts: 'normal' people do this all the time, when they engage in an activity they associate with pleasure which causes great distress and suffering.  If you have been around your relatives during the holidays you know exactly what I am talking about. 

However, the king of all perception problems is the inability of mankind to perceive God as a loving Father who will help us through our struggles, will heal us from our wounds, and grant us eternal life in Him.

According to the Fathers of the Church, pleasure is entirely subjective, and therefore we should avoid all forms of it and focus instead on what is needful.  By changing our perceptions in this manner, we can derive pleasure from good and eternal things, things that are worthy taking pleasure it because of their constructive rather than destructive effects.

There's a lot more to say on this, and that's why this is a blog.  Stay tuned for more.


  1. Father, I am an orthodox Christian that has started going to Food Addicts in Recovery meetings and am weighing and measuring my food and am seeing results from this. However, I have a "temporary" sponsor and need to find a permanent one. Are there ANY orthodox Christians out there that are in this program? Also, should I, as an orthodox christian even be in this program?

    1. OA is a solid program overall, but as with any recovery group, there can be bad local groups. If you are uncomfortable with where you are because they are advocating immoral or dangerous things, then go to another group until you find a healthy one. As for OAs in the Orthodox Church, yes they are out there, but I cannot speak for your area. You will just have to keep visiting meetings and praying. Whatever you do, keep your sponsor local... don't pick someone you only talk to over the phone. You need face-time with a sponsor.