Society’s attempts to tackle addiction have failed because it is not approached as a social issue. Photo by Michael Swan

Spiritual crisis is at the heart of addiction

  • April 6, 2017

In the United States, nearly four million people use heroin — a five-fold increase from a decade ago, according to new research from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Last month, parents in the quiet Ottawa suburb of Kanata jammed a meeting with public health and Catholic school board officials following the overdose death of a 14-year-old schoolgirl — one more victim of the lethal drug fentanyl.

Google the words “opioid crisis Canada” and you get over half a million hits.

The stark reality is that while educators, law enforcement and the medical community have all tried to tackle the drug problem, the overdoses, addictions and deaths keep piling up.

“The trouble is that we approach addiction as a personal problem instead of a social issue,” said Catholic sociologist David Seljak.

Seljak says society has more resources than ever to combat addiction — rehab centres, Alcoholic Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Narconon — but “we’ve never had more addiction.”

“What we’ve done is multiplied the remedies and carried on a decades-long war on drugs that has, by any sane measure, been a total failure. We’ve spent billions and we have more drugs, more addictions, more criminals, more people incarcerated, more lives ruined, more overdose deaths. You can’t imagine a more colossal failure.”

Carefully reading Pope Francis, Seljak has come to the conclusion addiction isn’t a disease or a medical problem or even an aberration in our culture. Addiction is a spiritual problem, and by spiritual Seljak means social.

Using Pope Francis’ analysis of the global economy in Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’, the St. Jerome’s University professor concludes addiction is just one part of a global spiritual crisis. If it seems a stretch to apply the Pope’s writing about economics and culture to the problem of addiction, Seljak points to analysis by an atheist psychologist.

Canadian pioneer in addiction theory Bruce Alexander wrote a book called The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit in 2010. Since then, Alexander has been extending his addiction theory based on his reading of Evangelii Gaudium.

Alexander admires many Christians, but that’s as far as it goes. For him, Pope Francis and Jesus are two thinkers with important insights. When he uses the words “poverty of spirit” to describe the preconditions for addiction, he’s thinking quite specifically of the Sermon on the Mount.

“Jesus was a concise guy. He knew how to say it,” Alexander said. “I don’t know any mundane psychological language to say quite as clearly that people are shrivelled inside — and they’re needy and they’re grasping, desperate. ‘Poor in spirit’ does it admirably.”

Alexander has been upsetting the science of addiction since the 1970s, when he conducted his famous “Rat Park” experiment. Until then, scientists used rats in standard metal cages to determine the addictive power of drugs, showing how a lone rat, given the choice of food, water and drugs like heroin or cocaine, would increasingly choose the drug. Alexander thought perhaps the problem is the cage. He repeated the experiment, but this time the rats were placed in a large, rat-friendly environment with other rats. Under these circumstances the rats almost never chose heroin.

Alexander undertook the experiment based on his experience as a psychologist working with addicts. His patients told him they took drugs to escape the emptiness, despair and meaninglessness of their lives.

“It’s one of those cases where in an age of anxiety and despair, lots of people who are thinking carefully can see that there’s this inner poverty,” said Alexander.

On the front lines today, Michael Tibollo, chairman and addiction counsellor at the Catholic-supported Caritas School for Life, backs up Alexander’s observations, calling the underlying causes of addiction “a societal, external problem.” Politicians, the medical profession, social workers and even Church leaders have failed to face the problem, he said.

“I can’t remember the last time in a homily that I’ve heard any priest talk about feeding minds and how to help people who are addicts. It’s forgotten,” he said. “Politicians don’t rely on addicts to vote.”

Addictions can spiral from perfectly legal, even acceptable behaviours, he said. The Internet, work, games, gambling, porn, sex, obsessive religious devotions can all become “process addictions.”

“It’s easy to substitute from a process addiction to alcohol, to cocaine, to heroin, to fentanyl,” said Tibollo. “You have no idea how quickly it spirals out of control when you lack that social part in your life.”

Seljak argues that “addiction doesn’t come from a deficiency in the brain of the addict. It’s their living conditions.”

Those conditions include a culture that treats people either as units of production or engines of consumption, exactly the sort of soulless, valueless society Pope Francis condemns in Laudato Si’.

Seljak asks: If the entire economy depends upon shallow, repetitive, compulsive behaviour, is it any wonder addiction abounds?

This view of society as fatally flawed begs the question: What are we supposed to do about it?

This isn’t just abstract theory and social analysis, said Tibollo.

“When we talk about the guy sitting in prison, or the person sitting at home with a needle in his arm, or the parents at home, crying at the table, the only hope we’re going to get is from a constant reminder that this is an affliction of society,” Tibollo said. “We need someone at a pastoral level who is actually trying to make a difference from the standpoint of trying to remove the stigma of addiction and having that as an issue in the family.”

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