Over the past several weeks, I have seen an article pop up online from a few different sources: “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think,” by Johann Hari. The author primarily discusses drug addiction and the common, yet erroneous, beliefs we have about it: “Imagine if you and I and the next twenty people to pass us on the street take a really potent drug for twenty days. There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That’s what addiction means.”
Part of our understanding of addiction is based on experiments done on rats. When placed in cages with the choice of plain water or water laced with cocaine, rats chose the drug, even if it killed them. But psychologist Bruce Alexander discovered something interesting about those studies: individual rats were placed in cages alone. He wondered what would happen if they were not alone and did some follow-up experiments.
Alexander created a Rat Park that offered good food, fun things to do, and most importantly, other rats. When the same two water options were given to this community, the rats drank only about 25% of the drugged water. In fact, they seemed to prefer the regular water. When he recreated the original experiment with a rat alone in a cage, it predictably chose the drugged water. However, if an addicted rat was placed back into the Rat Park, it recovered quickly and rarely went back to the drugged water. Community and circumstance seemed to make all the difference.
Community Is Key to Recovery
So, how does this relate to Where Grace Abounds and issues of sexuality, relationships, and intimacy? Let’s explore that a bit. If people can be addicted to sex or pornography, might community and authentic connection be keys to their recovery for them as well?
One of the things we have taught at WGA for a long time is that sexual issues are rooted in relational problems. If one persists in trying to get authentic needs met from a source that cannot meet them, addiction can form, especially if numbing of pain or some sort of payoff is involved. The rats in the experiment opted for drugs when they were alone, either because they were bored, lonely or wanted to feel something intense. I believe the same is true for lonely, bored people who choose pornography, fantasy, etc., to meet their need for true connection: they end up addicted, if they remain alone.
Ineffective, addiction-recovery programs assume that once people have physically “withdrawn” from the influence of drugs, they can return to their lives with a fighting chance of maintaining sobriety. But without exploration and resolution of the issues that led to the addiction in the first place, there is barely a chance at all. People need tools to establish meaningful connections with others before they can sever the connection to their former drug of choice.
Authentic Connections Are Vital
This reality, that authentic connection is vital to every human being (and rat too), is at the heart of what Where Grace Abounds offers. This is why WGA programs are part support group and part community. We firmly believe that connection with one another the key to healing for those struggling with sexual and relational issues.
God created men and women with core needs: to be known, to be loved, and to have purpose and meaning. When these core needs are not met, people seek out substitutes, or things that at least dull the pain of unmet needs for a while. Simply removing access to porn or unhealthy relationships won’t solve the problem; it is only a first step to helping a person get in touch with the deep longings of his/ her heart. Without community and true connection, those longings and desires lead back to darkness.
Hari ends his article especially poignantly, “When I returned from my long journey [research for article and book], I looked at my ex-boyfriend, in withdrawal, trembling on my spare bed, and I thought about him differently. For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts. It occurred to me as I wiped his brow, we should have been singing love songs to them all along.”