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Healthy Living February Issue

What is an Addiction?

What really is an addiction anyway? Surprisingly, even the experts give different definitions as to what constitutes addiction. For example, Stedman’s Medical Dictionary defines it as "habitual psychological and physiological dependence on a substance or practice that is beyond voluntary control."1 This definition is a good start. To help us get a clearer view of what constitutes an addiction, let us look at five common characteristics of addictions, as listed in Figure 1: Common Characteristics of Addictions.2, 3, 4

Not all of these criteria have to be met for a habit to be classified as an addiction. But the broad scope of effects arising from addictive agents is helpful to be aware of. Whether a habit is classified as an addiction is not the important issue. What is critical is that many habits have addictive components and dealing with the habit as an addiction is likely to meet with success where other approaches have failed.

The most important aspect of an addiction is crystallized in Stedman’s definition where it speaks of a loss of control. This element of compulsion is the most critical aspect of addictive behaviors. For example, a person who decides to eat just one chocolate in a box but ends up eating half the box is likely demonstrating an addiction to chocolate based on this probable evidence of compulsive eating. True, the person may not go through a withdrawal syndrome if the use of chocolate is stopped; there may be no signs of desiring progressively larger amounts of chocolate-yet, the critical compulsive element is there. The same could be true of ice cream addicts or those who compulsively watch television. Of course, those who are addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or drugs will fit the classic addiction definitions more strictly. However, the truth is that any habit in your life that is not totally under your voluntary control displays an addictive element-whether or not it is called an addiction.

The Problem with "Moderation"

Why is a broader definition of addiction so important? It is crucial in view of the fact that many people never break free of their most ingrained habits because of the fallacy of "moderation." I find this true especially in the area of problem foods. Consider the example of the person who could not control the consumption of chocolate. Many health educators would say it is fine to use chocolate-if it is used in moderation. This advice misses an important point; that is, an individual who has a compulsive relationship to a food can no more use it moderately than an alcoholic can return to "moderate" drinking or a nicotine addict can return to "moderate" smoking. In dealing with any addictive habit, total abstinence for life is necessary.

Need for Total Abstinence

Some may think that this is a cruel and narrow-minded approach. In the short run, this may be a difficult concept to embrace. But if you have an addictive habit and really want success, you will need to make a clean break with it. The amazing thing is that in the long run, committing to an immediate change is actually the easiest approach. We actually have the capacity to choose what we will enjoy. If we habitually engage in certain behaviors, especially if they give us some reward (such as better health or increased feelings of satisfaction), we will tend to develop an enjoyment for those new habits; that is, we free ourselves to develop new enjoyments and new behaviors. If, however, we "reward" ourselves with the "bad habit" periodically, as some people advocate, we undermine our ability to develop enjoyment for a lifestyle that is free of that agent.

Let us draw another lesson from the person with a chocolate addiction. That individual may break free from daily use of chocolate and experience a loss in weight, better control of blood sugar, and may feel better as a result. However, if a "reward" of chocolate is taken once a month, the stage is set for a downfall. Although the individual may still lose weight and improve diabetes control on the once-a-month chocolate regimen, freedom from the addiction of chocolate has not been attained. The desire for chocolate is being kept alive-and may even be increased, giving rise to feelings of a deep, distressing sense of deprivation. In most cases, sooner or later this individual will be back to the former level of consumption-or worse. If, however, chocolate is permanently abandoned and the thoughts directed toward the joy of being free of the substance, the chocolate element in life would not be missed. The taste buds actually become re-educated and the desire is gone.

Even if you are not dealing with an addictive substance, a complete rejection of it is the best strategy. Consider, for example, the person who realizes that the consumption of red meat is contributing to high cholesterol and heart problems. Let us say that there was no element of compulsion in this individual’s eating habits. A small piece of steak, pork, or lamb is satisfying. Nonetheless, this person comes to the conviction that even small amounts of red meat are making certain health problems worse. It will usually be easier to cut out red meat completely, rather than to cut down.

I could give one hundred more examples to illustrate that breaking it clean will dramatically increase the likelihood of your success. At this point, some of you may be saying that it sounds good but it will not work for my problem. Maybe your worst habit is overeating-surely, you reason, you cannot stop this habit suddenly. In problems like this, I recommend that you look carefully at your lifestyle and make a change in some aspect of the behavior. For example, the overeater may have no problem with overeating at breakfast or overeating vegetables at lunch or supper. He may have a problem, however, with desserts after supper. Perhaps a complete break should be made with desserts.

The premise of this chapter is that we need to take a lesson from classic addictions and apply it not only to the obvious addictions in our lives but to other habits that need changing. Those who are dealing with smoking, alcohol, caffeine, or addictive drugs are probably well aware that they need to stop these habits entirely. However, the same applies to other areas of addiction and habit-accepting the need to make a clean break can free you from the cycle of making and breaking your firmest resolutions once and for all.

Identify Habits that are Undermining Your Health

I would challenge you to look seriously at your lifestyle and the habits that are undermining your health. You may identify areas where abrupt changes need to be made in your life, yet you have no desire to make such drastic changes. Your lack of desire may be related to the pleasure that the habit gives, or your fear of failure. As you read the remainder of this chapter, however, you will learn that changing even your most cherished habits will actually give you more pleasure in the long run. Furthermore, regardless of how many times you have failed in the past, the material that follows can help you be successful this time.

I want to give you one other encouragement as you think about addressing areas that need changing in your life and the root causes of your problems. Let me illustrate with an example. Let us say that you have two problems: overeating and lack of exercise. As you analyze these problems, you find there is a third addiction that is the root cause which is contributing to the other two. You realize that you are one of the individuals whose biggest obstacle between you and a regular exercise program is the time spent with television. You also recognize that the TV provides the setting for your biggest problem with overeating junk food. Your lifestyle goal then may be to address your television addiction. If you are in complete control of your viewing habits, it may be a matter of setting some specific guidelines as to when, what, and how much you will watch. However, if TV has taken the role of an addiction in your life, a firm and complete break may be necessary. It would allow you time for daily exercise and destroy the setting for overeating.

Do not underestimate the addictive elements of television viewing. Those who are addicted may or may not be aware of the addiction. Television viewing is linked to many bad habits and deleterious behaviors, including violence. Chapter 12, "The Frontal Lobe, the Crown of the Brain," and Chapter 13, "Stemming the Tide of Violence," presents more information on this subject. Television is also a "time-robber." Many individuals cannot control their television viewing sufficiently to allow time for other areas of lifestyle that need to be addressed. For those, an uncompromising break with TV is in order.

For some individuals, simply recognizing the need to completely discontinue a lifestyle habit is all the insight they need. Once they embrace this concept and put it into action, success is ensured. However, addictions and other habits often hold enormous control over us. Many feel powerless to stop them although they know that it is necessary. Take the example of Ralph Jones,5 a patient of mine who is in his early 50’s. Ralph is a nicotine addict-a cigarette smoker-and he knows that smoking is bad for him. Ralph also has bad coronary artery disease, and has already had bypass surgery and angioplasty. The angiogram shows that his disease has become so advanced that the blockage has extended to the most distant parts of the arteries that can not be bypassed. We cannot angioplasty him because the disease is so widespread: his heart arteries are narrowed virtually throughout their entire length. Ralph needs to quit smoking and he knows it. He has told me several times, "I know I am killing myself, but I just cannot seem to quit." Clearly Ralph needs more than the intellectual acceptance; he needs to break from the habit completely. He needs a source of power. The information presented in this chapter is for him as well as for the many others that have an addiction of any kind they "cannot" overcome.

When you talk with those who have broken free from an addiction or other difficult habit, you will hear them give credit to a variety of sources. Some will attribute success to their own resolve, others to a program, still others to friends or a supportive group. However, in my experience one power more than any other has been the most effective in helping patients make needed health behavior changes-the power of God. You can do something about your addiction. Addictions do not have to occur, and neither do they have to persist. I have found that it is necessary to deal with deep spiritual issues to permanently conquer an addiction. Otherwise, addictions are very difficult to get rid of. Many health professionals who treat addictive patients have failed because of the neglect of the spiritual dimension. Those who have met with long term success have approached addiction from a spiritual aspect-trust in divine power.

I have seen God’s power at work in my life and aid me in the area of lifestyle change. Such personal success has inspired me to share that source of power with patients who are looking for help in conquering an addiction. Like any physician, what has worked in my practice is in part what I have experienced in my own life and what has worked in my patients’ lives. The point is that I am sharing things that I know will work because I have seen them work.

If you have not yet found success, there are methods that I have proven do work. I want to share from my experience how I have seen the principles of God’s power in His Word bring success in situations where it seemed impossible. Some may be surprised that the Holy Writ contains help for cleaning out the addictions in our lives.

Willingness to Suffer to Get Rid of Addictions

Let us step back for a minute, away from the issues of habits and addictions, and merely look at living the Christian life. Our model for such a lifestyle is Jesus Christ himself, one who was fully human and fully divine. But He laid His divinity aside when He came here to live on this earth. The Bible states that He did not use any power in overcoming that we do not have. The scriptures are also very plain in describing the suffering of Christ. One of the texts that mentions His suffering is found in Figure 6: Suffer Being Tempted.

The text explains that Jesus was fully human, of the seed of Abraham (not of Adam). In all things Christ was made like His brethren. He suffered, being tempted. This text is not referring to the suffering that He experienced on the cross, but the suffering He experienced from being tempted. Most of us are aware of the physical torture Jesus endured through the events leading up to His crucifixion. But His suffering while being tempted is related to the fact that He was made like unto His brethren. He inherited a fully human nature like Abraham had, and having such a nature He was able to be tempted just as we are.

Jesus’ desires were not always in harmony with the Father’s will. A classic example of this occurred in the wilderness of temptation. There we are told that after 40 days of fasting, Christ, with His human nature, was hungry.12 However, He did not satisfy this human desire when tempted, but rather chose God’s will and did not make food for Himself.13 As a human, He waited for His Father to provide for His needs rather than taking matters into His own hands and using His miracle-working divinity. So it was with every temptation in the Savior’s life; He never gave in to human desires. In spite of being repeatedly tempted, He was innocent of any sinful act. It is exceedingly important to recognize that it was possible for Christ to fail. If this were not the case, He could not fully have experienced temptation.

How did Jesus have the strength to keep from yielding to temptation? He relied upon His Father’s strength to overcome. He continually surrendered His will to the Father. No doubt, Jesus suffered in the wilderness when He chose to stay hungry rather than relieve the human desire for food. No doubt, on other occasions, Jesus often suffered in going against His own desires to go forward with God’s desires for Him. Christ said, "I do not my own will but the will of Him who sent me" (John 6:38). This declaration reemphasizes the fact that Jesus’ desires and His Father’s will were not always the same. Where they differed, He chose to do His Father’s will and it resulted in suffering. Peter, one of His closest followers, wrote further about Christ’s suffering as quoted in Figure 7: Dealing with Addiction.

Since Christ suffered in the flesh, we also should expect to suffer in our bodies and minds as we gain the victory over addiction. Although there are rare occasions where God takes away any struggle in dealing with a particular habit or addiction, for most of us there is no victory without suffering. Many Christians have faltered on this point of suffering.

Tragedy struck Jane Johnson.14 At the young age of 44 she suffered her first heart attack. The prospects were even scarier for her than most. You see, Jane had her children later in life, so she still had young children at home. The heart attack thus threatened not only her future but that of her young children. I worked with Jane in the hospital to try to ensure that she would make an uneventful recovery, and also to try to prevent any future heart attacks. One of my first lines of instruction was to make sure that Jane, then a smoker, understood that she needed to put smoking behind her. I informed her how stopping smoking was essential to prevent another heart attack and further heart damage. I was gratified that she did not smoke during the week that she was in the hospital. This was made easier because our hospital, like most, has a no-smoking policy. When I discharged Jane at the end of that week, she left as a nonsmoker with a new lease on life. One week without smoking was enough to undergo all of the withdrawal symptoms and conquer the addiction from a physiologic standpoint. All she had to do was continue on the good course she was on.

Six weeks later Jane was back in my office for a follow-up appointment. I was surprised to learn that she began smoking again after she left the hospital. She still had a psychological addiction. I said, "Jane, you have small children. You told me what your plans are for them, and how much you want to see them be successful in life. How are they going to be successful without you?" She asked, "What do you mean?" I said, "Your smoking will prevent them from having you around much longer. You are really taking a risk." She answered, "I know I am." I then reviewed with her the damage that smoking was doing to her health, and assured her that the Lord would give her the victory if she put her trust in Him. I finally said, "Jane, I know you are a Christian. Tell me why you continue to buy cigarettes when you know that God does not want you to smoke? Put your trust in Him." She said, "Dr. Nedley, I have put my trust in Him. But I will tell you why I haven’t quit smoking. It is because God has not taken away my desire for cigarettes. Because God hasn’t taken away the desire, I am continuing to smoke."

Jane expected that the Lord would somehow come in and perform surgery on her will, taking away her desire so that she would never want to smoke again. She was going to continue to smoke until that happened. Now I know of cases where God has sometimes done this very thing. However, I know of many more cases where God helped someone through the difficult process of saying "no" and gave them victory in the midst of suffering through the pains of withdrawal. If we are not willing to undergo some suffering from the withdrawal symptoms of an addiction, we will not have victory. We must take the first step. God will, through the hand of faith and the power that He gives us, then give us the complete victory. I shared these texts about suffering with Jane and I think she saw it in a new light.

Some Suffer More than Others

I live in Oklahoma, in the heart of the "Bible belt," so I have heard comments like Jane’s many times. Many Christians approach an addiction problem expecting to conquer it with little or no effort on their part, and then wonder why they meet with failure. In view of these pervasive sentiments, I want to be sure that this issue is completely clear: not all who conquer an addiction suffer to the same degree. I have seen those who have won the victory with a minimum of difficulty and suffering.

The Lord takes away the desire from some more quickly than others, which is a fulfillment of another scripture text about temptation. It states that God will not allow us to be tempted with anything that we cannot bear, or beyond what we are able to tolerate.15 Those who, for perhaps some unknown reason, would not be able to tolerate strong withdrawal symptoms (or perhaps even any at all) will have the symptoms and desires taken away by God. The Lord removes or reduces the desire and makes it possible for them to gain the victory. Each of us can be assured that God will not allow us to go through more than we can handle with His help.

However, even those that have it apparently easy in dealing with one addiction may face a different struggle with another addiction in which God allows them to suffer to a greater degree. God does not generally remove His people from difficulties. After all, the Bible teaches us that difficulties actually help to develop Christian virtues, as we trust God in the midst of our hardships.16 Therefore, God’s method of working is to help us in the midst of challenges and difficulties rather than by delivering us from them.

Examples of Suffering Which Led to Victory

Bible history is replete with examples. God did not prevent the Egyptians from cornering his people at the Red Sea, but He brought the Israelites through that massive body of water. God did not keep Daniel out of the lion’s den, but brought him through the experience. Daniel’s three friends were brought through the fire. The list goes on and on, but the point is that God’s purpose is not necessarily to keep us from temptations and difficulties but rather to give us the power to make it through those hardships without falling.17 Each experience gives us a stronger faith in God.

Let us now look at a documented experience of a person who was faced with a deeply entrenched habit, yet was finally able to gain a total and permanent victory. The habit was one that many can relate to: addiction to eating meat. The lessons learned from this experience should be helpful to anyone with this or other difficult habits or addictions.

There is an increasing number of people today who have become aware of the health risks of eating meat. The media publicizes public health studies that implicate meat as a cause of cancer, heart disease, and other diseases. Many are attempting to remove it from their diet, and some are discovering that their appetites cannot be satisfied without it. Some have even experienced what may be termed withdrawal symptoms.

Even though she was convinced that meat was harmful, Ellen White, whose comments on health have appeared in many of the chapters in this book, had difficulty in her personal life eliminating it from her diet. Prior to her conviction that she needed to break free from meat eating, she had come to a conflicting conclusion: she could not get along without meat. She kept a journal as she went through the battle. Her statement in Figure 8: "Meat was Indispensible" expressed feelings that she could not survive without meat.18

Some would label this a classic case of psychological addiction if not actual physical dependence. Regardless of what we call her meat eating, it was without question a firmly entrenched habit that seemed necessary to her. Even with meat in her diet, she was not in good health, but the faint feelings and dizziness were removed. Thus, matters became extremely difficult when she came to the conclusion that meat was dangerous to her health-and she knew that she had to give it up. The battle lines were set, for her entire experience told her that meat was necessary, in fact, "indispensable." Nonetheless, she followed her convictions and left off meat. She recorded the intensity of her struggle, as quoted in Figure 9: Ellen White's Battle.19

Ellen White acknowledged her great dependence on meat. She freely admitted, "I was a great meat eater." Those who have a firmly entrenched habit or an addiction of another kind could perhaps make a similar statement, substituting your own particular problem for the word "meat eater." She endured the feeling of faintness, and resolved to go hungry until her stomach was ready to accept bread, which was distasteful to her, in the place of meat. She knew that bread was a healthful food, particularly bread made from whole grain graham flour, but she had no appetite for it. In this battle, she not only attempted to eliminate the desire for a food that she loved, but at the same time she endeavored to generate a taste for a food that was distasteful to her. She described the experience as a "special battle to fight." The complete victory, which includes the loss of desire for the harmful substance, was not instantaneous-it took time. Gradually, her appetite changed to the point where she not only tolerated bread, but it tasted good. She recorded the improvement in her health after her dietary change with the words shown in Figure 10: No Meat - Better Health.20

Her health was markedly improved. She was using fruits and vegetables liberally; rich foods were no longer part of her diet. The former faint and dizzy feelings were gone, her strength was improved, and her appetite was satisfied. Furthermore, the food tasted better than ever. Her suffering resulted in all of these positive effects. Enduring psychological and physiological distress led to wonderful improvements, greater than she expected.

Was this radical change permanent? Was she tempted to go back to the old eating habits? Her answer is quoted in Figure 11: Ellen White's Victory.21

She wrote this six years after she changed her diet. The change was permanent. She had no desire to turn back. She "refused to yield to taste." She acknowledged that the Lord was glorified by her victory; it was the power of God in her life that enabled her to win the conflict. Choose Your Suffering - Some Now or Much More Later

This story is an encouragement to all who would conquer any addiction or deeply ingrained habit. The actual advantages of conquering a deleterious habit are often far beyond any theoretical knowledge of potential benefits. Thus, the suffering that must be endured in order to overcome is far less than the suffering that we will ultimately experience if we fail to make a change for the better. The severity and the duration of suffering may both be of greater magnitude. Furthermore, the benefits and joy of the new improved lifestyle far outweigh the "benefits" or temporary "good feelings" that are experienced by indulging in a harmful habit. Nonetheless, every experience in conquering addiction and habit is a battle to be won. The battle is more intense for some and less intense for others. Trust in God and willingness to suffer and pour out the soul before God will lead to victory. The more intense the battle, the sweeter the victory. Thank Him for the victory, and resolve that there will be no turning back. You will feel so much better than you feel now. You will be so thankful to God for what He has accomplished. The Strongest Temptations

In this chapter we have seen that Christ, our Great Example, because of His human nature, had desires that were not always in harmony with His Father’s will. Ellen White pointed out that the most critical battlefront in the war is to bring our will into harmony with God’s will. Her insights are stated in Figure 12: The Strongest Temptations.22

The most difficult battle that we each face is an internal battle-a battle against the inclinations and desires of our natural heart. The Holy Scriptures spell out that Christ "was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15). He, too, was tempted from within, just as we are. Because He is the Savior of mankind and our Example, it was necessary that He experience the same temptations that we do. He overcame all temptation and thus He can give us the victory in every area of our lives. He is willing to bestow that victory upon each of us if we merely reach out and accept the gift.

Conquering Appetite

We need divine power in our lives to overcome some of the most subtle temptations: strong appetites for foods that most people consider totally acceptable, but are not in harmony with God’s will. This is what Jesus needed when He refused to make food for Himself in the wilderness of temptation. This is what we need when tempted to indulge in any food or other habit that is not good for us. Figure 13: Overcoming Appetite speaks directly to this point.23

Some people who do not even believe in God may be able to walk away from temptations to indulge appetite. They may stop smoking, or eating harmful foods, or using caffeine "on their own"-by their own willpower. However, I believe the statement we have just looked at applies to all; namely, it is humanly impossible to gain full control over appetite in all its forms unless we have God’s power. One who does not avail himself of God’s power may gain many apparent victories over appetite, but ultimately there will be other battles that he loses because he lacks divine strength. The good news is that God will help us; yet, to receive that help we must avail ourselves of His power. We have already looked at the scriptural record of one of Christ’s most powerful temptations on the point of appetite.24 He called on the Word of God to gain the victory. God will provide a way of escape for every temptation. Let us then stop offering excuses for our bad habits and addictions. Believe me, as a physician, I have heard many excuses for continuing unhealthful practices. However, God accepts no such excuses. He has promised to provide the power to overcome.

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