Addiction as an Ersatz Religion

“Break on through to the other side. Break on through, break on through, break on through to the other side.” These lyrics from a Jim Morrison (and The Doors) song are so compelling to me in part because I always hear the intense musical rhythm that accompanied the words. And I think these lyrics express a deep hunger of the human heart, a hunger to “break on through to the other side” and experience another dimension of life that that often teases us. Unfortunately, I think Jim succeeded in this quest literally as he died of a drug overdose in the prime of a brilliant career. The metaphorical, or verbal, or spiritual “breaking on through” is the route to take.

I do think this hunger can be fatal if not approached in a spiritual framework. From my clinical work and from my personal life I feel that addiction, for example, can be seen as an ersatz religion, a contrivance that has been fashioned to cope with the abyss of this primal hunger. Kierkegaard noted that in the abyss one is apt to glom onto any “flotsam and jetsam” that happens to be nearby and once one has “glommed onto” something, it is let go of at great peril—the very abyss it was chosen to replace in the first place.

The Bible has lots of verses which reference this hunger and I think they are relevant to this urge to “break on through to the other side.” For example, “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Or, “My soul followeth hard after Thee, O Lord.” Or, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so my soul panteth after thee O Lord.”

These writers were feeling the anguish of addiction, that deeply spiritual urge, and for some reason or other they used words to cope with those emotions, sublimating their hunger with articulation. (And I don’t think it is happenstance that in the Judeo-Christian tradition God is presented as “The Word.”) There is an incredible difference between the unmitigated, non-verbal (and therefore behavioral) experience of being an addict and the humble statement, “I am an addict.” This is the kernel of the success of the 12-step movement.

Now I’ve always had this hunger. And in my youth I cloaked it in traditional religious garb and sought to make myself “special” as…more or less, for lack of a better term…a “holy man.” But religious clothing or personae is deadly as it appears to assuage the ravaging hunger but is often merely the above referenced “flotsam and jetsam”. I now see that hunger of mine as merely a simple refusal of the “fig leaf” that culture offers each of us. And, yes, it is tempting to let that itself cater to my need for being “special” but I just can’t take that bait any longer. I don’t accept artifice as readily as I used to. Yes, I am “special” but in the very same way that you are, and that my beloved dachshunds are, and those who I don’t like are, and even those who don’t like “literarylew” are! All of us, and the whole world, is an expression of the Divine and that Divine is always seeking recognition and finds it when we merely, humbly accept our human-ness. When we do this, and to the degree we do this, the Word has been made flesh. But all we get out of this is the simplicity of day to day life, of “chopping word and carrying water.” Beware of that tempting “specialness” as it springs from the pits of hell. Remember the Christian doctrine of kenosis, that God “humbled himself” and took on flesh.

And here is an afterthought, relevant to addiction, from the always astute Marianne Williamson:

If there is something you want really badly, and you think obsessively about getting it, then know that on an energetic level your attachment is actually sending it away. The answer? Prayer. ‘Dear God, take away my idolatrous thinking, luring me into thinking that something or someone other than You is the source of my salvation.’


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