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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: Breaking the Chains of Addiction

The author of this review kindly sent this to me, and since I have received a number of inquiries about this book, I thought it prudent to post it.  Readers who would also like to contribute to this blog are welcome to submit material.  I can't make any promises whether it will end up here or not, since there are a number of contributing factors, but you are welcome to give it a shot.


Breaking the Chains of Addiction: How to use ancient Eastern Orthodox Spirituality to free our minds and bodies from all addictions. Victor Mihailoff. Regina Orthodox Press, Inc., no date.

Review by:
Michael G. Huber ThM, LPC, CSAC
Psychotherapist and addictions specialist
BridgePoint Health
Sheboygan, Wisconsin

   There’s a saying in the popular addictions recovery field that goes something like this: “whatever it takes.” The point of this saying is that outcomes in treatment of addictions generally are so poor that the addicted individual should not in any way limit the possibilities on the path of recovery.

   One of the most important things that the author states in this new entry in the field of addictions treatment is that his book is strictly targeted to Orthodox Christians. Indeed the vast majority of the addicted population in the U.S. will find this book not only impractical but likely impossible to digest. Therefore, it is strongly advised that, in most cases, well meaning Orthodox not give this book to a friend or family member struggling with a substance or behavioral problem who is not Orthodox in spite of this suggestion on the back cover of the book.

   However, the author actually could reach a larger population than he imagined. It was the popular psychiatrist/author Gerald May who poignantly stated, “To be human is to be addicted.” In the end, this book could be useful for all Orthodox whether addicted to substances or not. This is also suggested by the original subtitle of the J. Keith Miller book Sin: Overcoming the Ultimate Deadly Addiction.

   The most compelling reason for this suggestion comes from Mihailoff’s prolific use of quotes from the Orthodox Fathers and the Scriptures. Examining these, it is clear from the contexts of nearly every one of them that the references are not specifically targeting people addicted to substances but are intended for the broad population of all Orthodox when not specifically intended for monastics. (Interestingly, an addictions specialist has suggested that the current global addictions problem is a relatively recently historical phenomenon.) Indeed it could be stated that this book is in essence really nothing more than a succinct outlining of the ascetical practices prescribed for all Orthodox. As a result, perhaps too few Orthodox will read this book because of the title and stated target population. The barrier for most Orthodox, who do not struggle with a chemical or behavioral addiction, is the author’s ubiquitous use of subcultural addictions language.

   Yet, one of the strengths of the author is his repeated emphasis to get down to “beginner” level. He correctly or incorrectly applies this aspect of St. Paul’s “milk.” Of course, Orthodox wisdom teaches the paradox that as one progresses along the path away from the “milk” the more one realizes that he or she is still just a “beginner.” The elementary things of Orthodox practice cannot be overemphasized. But it is not about the elementary concepts, as important as those are; it is the practice that is critical, i.e. prayer, Bible meditation, observing and working with self insights. Using the Epistle of St. James as his foundation, Milhailoff excels in this; likely because in the world of substance addictions simply good ideas just don’t cut it. But, again, this is true for all Orthodox.

   With regard to the Bible meditation, reading, prayer and psalmody part of ascetical practice, the author subtly convicts centuries of Orthodox when he states that no copy of the Bible or Orthodox prayer books could be found in his cradle Orthodox home. Indeed, the author sounds distinctly evangelical Protestant in his verbiage when it comes to applications like this; just add fasting, sacramental participation and specific forms of Orthodox prayer to it. The author is to be commended for his strong biblical emphasis, but strangely insists on the King James Version of the Bible. He seems to be unaware of the Orthodox Study Bible which uses the far better New King James Version, a far more readable edition, especially for “beginners.” One notable difficulty in this regard is his misuse of 1 Cor. 16:15 where the KJV text states the new converts to Christianity “addicted” themselves to ministry. The author erroneously forces the meaning of this word to suggest transference of one’s bad addiction to a “good” one. But the Greek word St. Paul employs here, transliterated: “tasso,” is not an equivalent of our modern word “addicted.” Instead, as both the NIV and NKJV read, the word “devoted” more accurately renders the meaning. “Addiction” always indicates loss of control; and the fruit of the Spirit is self-control (Gal. 5:23). One can, for the most part then, set aside the author’s recommendation to repeatedly refer to a dictionary to define all those outdated Middle English terms by simply using the Orthodox Study Bible.

   Having said that, the author’s mental perspective reflects that of the popular recovery world. His language is forceful, direct, opinionated and, at times, narrow. In the author’s defense, this is often what is required by many facing a substance or behavioral addiction. It often requires all out, extreme measures such as directed by the harsh (but very nonliteral) saying of Jesus in Mt. 5:29-30, a Scriptural quotation the author wisely leaves out of his book.

   Another interesting aspect of the author’s “psychology” is his frequent mentioning of the “addictive personality” with which the author himself identifies. The foundation of the book rests on the author’s own personal experience overcoming “six” addictions which are not specifically listed. This reference to an “addictive personality” is also common in the broad recovery field. However, the author does not specify or deepen our understanding of this “addictive personality,” which will likely leave nearly all readers clueless regarding its proper and exact application. In fact, we now have the specific “science” of insight into personality structure traits and dynamics that bring improved understanding to this whole subject, but the author seems unaware of this.

   While I recommend this book for the targeted (and now expanded) audience, none the less, there could be potential misunderstanding of the author’s narrow emphasis. While it is certainly possible that a few individuals (including the author?) might recover with a sole emphasis on Orthodox practice, it is likely that most will not be able to without the use of contemporary treatment programs and/or support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The discussion of AA is given its own very short chapter which the author includes for the sake of “atheists and agnostics” despite the fact that he acknowledges the Christian roots of the Twelve Steps of AA. (Why the author would do this when he strictly targets the book for Orthodox Christians is uncertain.) For an excellent discussion of this the reader should consult Orthodox priest and therapist Fr. Meletios Webber’s Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps. This reviewer fears that some reading this book might form judgmental opinions against the very programs that could help them. This would be somewhat analogous to the mistaken notion that Orthodoxy teaches the rejection of medical doctors for physical ailments. Of course, this reviewer is not in any way suggesting that the author believes this, but his approach could imply this to some.

   Ironically, the author has a very helpful series of professional research articles in the Appendix that support the biological/genetic component of alcoholism and likely other drug addictions. This makes a referral to an appropriate MD addiction specialist and treatment program reasonable and often necessary. This reviewer, a longtime practicing Orthodox psychotherapist and alcohol/drug counselor, strongly subscribes to the philosophical statement of OCAMPR (Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology, Religion) which affirms the Orthodox theological position that God created all the world, not just the “Orthodox” part of it and that the Spirit of God can work in even the most atheistic of doctors and addiction specialists.

   The reasonable approach here is that any Orthodox substance/behavioral addict ought to seek help in contemporary treatment programs and go all out with the author’s outline of Orthodox ascetic practice. Another application difficulty: how many addicted readers could actually embark on the hermit life as the author has to escape tempting environments?

   Finally, let us all rigorously follow the commandment of Christ to not in any way judge our Orthodox (and nonOrthodox) addicted brethren, since we are all addicted, just in a more subtle and different way.

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