“I’ve gotten over X” they say, “but now I have Y! Something else has taken its place! What’s wrong with me? Will this ever end?”
Swapping one harmful behaviour for another. The anorexia who becomes bulimic. The bulimic who starts to self-harm. The self-harmer who turns to alcohol. The alcoholic who starts abusing painkillers. Here’s how one blog reader puts it:
“Eating was relief for my depression, but this led to despair. Purging was relief from my despair, but this lead to anxiety. Cutting became a relief from the anxiety, but this led back to depression.”
It makes a horrible sort of sense, doesn’t it? We develop certain behaviours because they help us in some way. Take them away and we’ll look for something similar to take their place. Something that does the same job.
As a teenager, when I was being treated for anorexia, I developed OCD. It had been a rough time for the whole family but at last, it seemed like I was turning a corner. I was putting on weight. I didn’t feel so “fat.” But I did feel …dirty. Contaminated. Unclean.
Before, I’d poured my feelings into losing weight. Now, they found an new outlet. Where I’d worried about calories, now I worried about germs. I started washing – over and over, sometimes with neat bleach. If I got it wrong I’d have to start over.
And over again.
My parents were dumbfounded. “We’ve been through all this and now there’s something else?!”
I felt the same. Why was I so weird? How could one person struggle with so many things?
Over time, I’ve come to see that struggling in this way doesn’t makes me uniquely weird. In fact, it’s universally human. All of us have deep desires that demand satisfaction – and beating ourselves up for it doesn’t help. What does help is to look at the way we tick and learn from it. Someone who was way ahead of us on this was the Scottish pastor, Thomas Chalmers. He writes:
[No-one] can dispossess the heart of an old affection, but by the expulsive power of a new one.
Chalmers says that we can try to reason with our hearts all we like. We can tell ourselves that our compulsions are ridiculous and try with all our might to stop… but it won’t work. The only thing that gets rid of an old slavery is a vision and love that’s even more compelling. Our addictions are what we see on the surface. But it’s affections (deep desires of the heart) which are the forces underneath. (Read the whole sermon).
This is why we run from one addiction to the next to the next. The issue is not fat or thin or clean or sober, it’s something deeper. Something we’re seeking with our whole heart. If we don’t address this deeper affection, we’re simply fire-fighting: swapping one addiction for another. What we really want to do is swap one affection for another.
When we struggle with a new addiction, we need to look not just at the behaviour, but at the desire which drives it. Say you swap OCD for an exercise addiction and you can’t seem to reverse it by trying harder. Don’t panic: now the deeper work can begin.
Ask yourself: what is underlying both the OCD and the exercise addiction? What do these things give you?
Maybe you answer “control.” That’s a start. But there are many more questions to ask. Control – how? Control of what? Control why? Control since when? And by whose standard? And…
Keep going. Keep digging. Do it with friends. Do it in prayer. But get to what has captured your heart. Why? Because as Jeremiah 2:13 remind us – this is our broken well. It’s the pit we keep digging which delivers only mud.
As we grapple with these issues we’re going beneath our addictions. We’re getting to the affections – and the heart.