Let's Not Call It Addiction

Eight hours ago I was sitting in the back row of a packed classroom in a new ward listening to a lesson in a combined Elder’s Quorum/Relief Society meeting. Fifth Sunday combined classes tend to be milder, less self-deprecating, and a little more sociable. There tends to be more audience participation. To be fair, the lion’s share of that added participation comes from the sister. The guys still table most of their comments. But there also tends to be less depth in the discussions; the classroom becomes an echo chamber of group think and dogmatic platitudes.

Missionaries from LDS Family Services presented information about the LDS church’s Addiction Recover Program.

It is more or less a Mormon rework of traditional 12-Step programs. There is plenty of criticism about 12-Step. Tom Woods does a pretty good job giving fair voice to the critics in The Truth About the Rehab Industry and 12-Step. I have no interest exploring the limits of that criticism any farther than that.

I sat listening to the presenters. They had their script. The stated purpose of the meeting was to inform us of the resources available to addicts, and their loved ones, via the Addiction Recovery Program. The reality of their presentation, however, went beyond a simple informational lecture. Within minutes the presenters shifted gears. No longer was the session about the services and resources offered by the program. Instead, it became a platform from which to spread a very dangerous idea: all addictive behavior is evidence of addiction.

I immediately began to feel uneasy. This idea need not be expressly stated for it to distill itself in the minds of the learners. The missionaries spared no effort citing statistic on statistic and study on study. Within minutes they invoked the Voldemort of Mormon vices: pornography. There should be a Godwin’s Law for Mormons, “As any discussion of morality rows longer, the probability of a participant referencing pornography addiction approaches 1.” In LDS circles, pornography consumption is evidence of pornography addiction, everywhere and always. It is a universal axiom.

I’m not sure that the missionaries were quite aware of what they were doing, but by leveraging the cultural ethic that excludes the possibility of non-habitual consumption of pornography, they were subtly suggesting that ALL vicious actions are ALWAYS driven by addiction.

And therein is the danger.

I reluctantly raised my hand. I was called upon and I asked, “Does there exist a spiritual risk in framing as “addiction”, behavior which only poses the risk of one day becoming an addiction, but is not yet actually addiction?”

I swore I felt the mood of the room change as audible gasps filled the air. Then silence. Then shifting eyes. Then eager hands shot to the sky. The comments rolled in. I was barraged with a dozen variations of “no addict believes they are addicted.”

They didn’t get it.

They missed my point entirely.

What I had hoped to do was help them comprehend that although the slope may be steeper and more slippery for some behaviors than others, no one starts addicted. Contrary to all the War on Drugs propaganda, just one hit is NOT all that it takes. Not with alcohol, not with tobacco, not with pot, and not with pornography.

Addiction eliminates agency.

We have all been affected by substance abuse, destructive conduct, and ugly habit-forming behavior. If we haven’t been involved directly ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, and acquaintances have been. Many of us are also touched by real, unstoppable addiction and dependency. Addiction, real addiction, is ugly. It is irrational. It destroys life. It creates only misery, chaos, and death. I hate it.

But addiction and addictive behavior are not the same.

Where addiction requires intervention, an all-in support framework, and end-to-end programs like 12-step (which never actually ends), addictive behavior, especially in its earliest stages, requires a completely different approach. Where addiction has rewired neural paths, addictive behavior hasn’t [yet]. Where addiction has seeded dependency and compulsiveness, addictive behavior hasn’t [yet]. Where treating addiction may require medical intervention, changing addictive behavior requires connection.

There are primarily two types of addiction. Substance addiction, and behavioral addiction. The former requires medical and psychological treatment. The latter requires intensive cognitive behavioral therapy to address the triggers of the behavior. Consider the word “trigger”. It is good imagery. It illustrates the idea that an event can occur that will cause a cascade of actions that are as difficult to reverse as pausing a bullet after the primer explodes. These behavioral addicts have lost their agency, possibly for life, and the only way to control the behavior, is to safeguard ones-self from the triggers.

This is illustrated by the recovered alcoholic who avoids restaurants with bars, the soap-opera addict who doesn’t own a TV, and the former porn addict that installs filters on his computer, tablet, and cell phone. All of these have curated a lifestyle that limits the possibility of encountering the behavioral trigger. Their treatment is just that, it is a treatment. Fundamental to 12-Step is acceptance that the habit is a fundamental part of one’s identity, and an ever-present threat.

That is not the state of a person who is not an addict.

The non-addict who engages in risky behavior is doing so to satisfy his or her most valued objective at the moment. He does not act on auto-pilot. They are not automatons driven by triggers. They are rational and self-interested, although perhaps dangerously myopic. They engage in behavior deliberately, seeking a specific reward. In time, that which was once identified as an impetus or temptation may turn into a trigger. At that point addiction is real, and the treatment protocol is different. But it only becomes addiction once that threshold is crossed.

A master of the science of human action once said:

It is a fact that human reason is not infallible and that man very often errs in selecting and applying means. An action unsuited to the end sought… is rational, i.e., the outcome of a reasonable–although faulty–deliberation and an attempt–although an ineffectual attempt–to attain a definite goal.1

A person who engages in risky, habit-forming behavior is acting rationally. They perceive uneasiness and are attempting to satisfy that uneasiness. That the behavior may not actually satisfy it is irrelevant.

We all have a mental model of what we want most, now and in the future. We are willing to sacrifice some things today to get other things in the future, and we are willing to sacrifice some things in the future to get other things today. This ever changing scale of values is what drives us to take action, both risky and safe. It is a scale that, for most of us, fluctuates violently. Just because I value beach-body abs more than anything in the world right now doesn’t mean that will be the case the second my wife walks through the door with a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts. My values restructure. My perceived uneasiness shifts (from “I hate being fat” to “I hate feeling hungry”). With that restructuring comes a change in behavior.

The person who engages in risky, habit-forming, addictive behavior, is doing so to satisfy his or her most valued objective at the moment.

There is a spiritual risk in associating addictive behavior with full-blown addiction.

When we associate addictive behavior, with full-blown addiction, we are projecting the idea that the person is acting out of control, that they are no longer rational beings, that their actions are independent of their value scales. That is particularly dangerous because it denies the possibility that a person is actually hurting. It denies the possibility that the person senses some deep need for something real. It is insulting, and if it is not true, it has the potential of destroying friendships forever.

Think of your closest friend, the one that means the most to you. Imagine you happened to overhear them in a conversation they thought was private. Imagine they are talking about you. Imagine hearing these words, “[Your name] is a good person on the inside, but he is a puppet. He’s completely brainwashed. It’s sad, I love him, but I can’t do anything to help. He can’t even help himself. There is definitely something wrong with him.” What would that do to you? How would it affect your behavior? How would your mutual feelings about that person influence your behavior?

When we as loved ones, friends, mentors, or leaders, invoke the label “addict”, we close the doors on what the person we are trying to help really needs. She needs something to shake up her value scale, something to restructure it. She needs a connection that fundamentally realigns what she values most. That is what fellowship, ministering, and mutual support are all about.

The Savior taught “As I have loved you, Love one another.” This is the key to forever altering another’s value scale.


We can call it dangerous. We can call it ineffectual. We can call it risky. But please stop invoking addiction where there is none.

Instead, let’s invoke love. Let us share more hugs and point fewer fingers. Let us share what we really feel.

When a mom catches her 12 year-old son looking at pornography, she could launch a tirade of invectives, arrange for meetings with the bishop, and read chapters from “Miracle of Forgiveness” to him. Or she could tell her son how much she loves him, and how her heart has been melting with compassion for him. She could tell him that she senses that something is bothering him. She should tell him that she is aware of his risky behavior, but that she is much more concerned with what thoughts or feelings lead him to choose pornography as a solution. They should talk about the ineffectiveness of the means, but not dwell on the action. She should tell him that it worries her, because she knows that he knows the risks. She should bleed love until he sees that she is worried, not about the behavior, but about what drove him to the behavior. She should do everything she can to make preserving his connection with her of higher value to him than whatever need/want drove him to pornography to begin with.

When a friend sees his best friend drinking to excess, he could call is friend an idiot, tell him to sober up, or join some 12-Step program. Or he could, look his friend in the eye and say, “Do you have any clue how important you are to me? You’re my friend. I know you know the bottle is dangerous, and I don’t want to lose you. What’s bothering you, man? I get the sense that something is hurting.” He should ooze brotherly love (unfortunately our culture has nearly exterminated this). He should open himself up completely and really love his friend.

Connection, love, and vulnerability are the antidote. They are prerequisite to any real lasting influence. Again. Let’s not call it addiction.

1Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2008.