In my more than 13 years with InterVarsity, I’ve walked with dozens of guys through their addiction. Jim’s story (I’ve changed his name) is not uncommon based on my experience.
To others, Jim seemed to have it together. As he approached college graduation he was also on the verge of marrying his high school sweetheart and landing a job. A closer look, however, revealed that Jim regularly skipped out on opportunities to serve in his InterVarsity chapter. He said it was because he had too much homework, but the truth was that he was spending upwards of six hours a day gaming and then trading porn online.
In the midst of his own struggles with gaming, porn, and masturbation, Jim was also concerned for his fiancée. Independent of Jim’s addiction, she had grown addicted to porn and masturbation as well and was now beginning to question the validity of her faith.
Even though Jim desperately wanted to stop, he didn’t know how. Like many addictions, masturbation would make Jim feel good for about two minutes, but when it was over, feelings of shame and guilt followed by depression and anger that he had given in to the temptation again would send him into an emotional tailspin in which masturbation seemed like the only way out. He had no healthy coping mechanisms to help him break the pattern. And he was slow to recognize or unwilling to acknowledge that he even had a problem. He had forgotten everything he needed to be about.
Am I addicted?
A major breakthrough came when he finally admitted that he was addicted and realized that his brain needed rewiring. After a few conversations together, we were able to start figuring out the emotional and physical triggers that increased the chance for the behaviors: stress, being alone, a certain time of the day, hunger, and especially shame, anger, and depression.
We developed a plan in response to the triggers we identified. When Jim started to feel lethargic or lonely, for example, he was to leave his room, call a friend, pick up his Bible, or go work out—things that would get him up and moving. As he started to experience freedom, I added more accountability to his plan; if he slipped back into the addictive cycle, I denied myself a meal. This made him more aware of his inner world and emotions and of the importance of trying to catch his emotional or spiritual triggers before they got him.
We can all learn a lot from Jim.
Many addictions are frequently considered normal or even idealized college guy behavior. We need to call them exactly what they are: destructive addictions.
We cannot get unstuck alone. Jim leaned on his small group and me.
We are never the only ones affected by our addictions. One of the chief lies of an addiction is that it doesn’t hurt anyone but me.
Not admitting that we have an addiction is the greatest barrier to healing. I’ve seen how very gifted I am at self-deception in order to avoid admitting a struggle is occurring. I can simply compare myself to the expectations of others rather than the truth of God’s Word or the tests of wise counselors.
Who am I serving?
In Matthew 6:24, Jesus gives us a very helpful measure for whether we might be addicted to something. He says, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” When confronting addiction, this is the kind of black and white thinking that is needed. Either I serve God, or I serve the addiction.
In this case, Jesus is talking about the idol of money. My addiction might be to something different. Basically, it’s whatever I am worshipping with my talents, energy, and affection. And it’s a reversal of the greatest commandment. Instead of loving God and neighbor, I’m giving my heart, soul, mind, and strength to the addiction; everything I am is ultimately going to drinking, video games, masturbation, self-mutilation, gambling. The addiction takes precedence over and above my neighbor.
One of the 24 questions used at Alcoholics Anonymous to determine addiction gets at a similar point: Do I do it, even when it means I am harming myself or others? This might mean drinking and then driving with others in the car, going into debt and then borrowing money, skipping out on being with people who will tell us the truth, or taking steps to hide or protect the evidence of our addiction. Like Jim, we guys often continue to indulge in an industry that is taking advantage of abused women, and we disregard the pain of the ones we love most. We need groups like AA, small groups, and friends and mentors in our church to force us to confront the reality of our selfishness.
In Jim’s case and in every other one I’ve seen, addiction always keeps God’s kingdom from being advanced and hurts most directly the people in the life of the person struggling. Conversely, as young men find the courage to seek help in a Christian counselor, their mentors, prayer, or a small group, greater acclaim is given to God’s work and his redemptive power. In Jim’s life, after nine months of seeking help, praying, and striving, he and those in his life would say it was worth it.
One in four adults—about 61.5 million Americans—wrestle with mental illness each year, and 13.6 million live with a serious, ongoing illness such as bipolar disorder or major depression. October 6 to 12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week, so we’ve been posting stories and tools to foster conversation and break down misconceptions about mental illness. As you read, may you be encouraged in your own life and better equipped to help others in the journey.