An old friend emailed me the other day asking some questions about his alcohol use when we were in our 20s. (That means 25 years ago—seems like another life)

I still don’t know what I think about addiction . . . All I know is that at one time I was compelled to overdrink, and now I am not. I have been on lithium for 7 years, and that has erased all my compulsions. My abusive drinking, I know, was driven by a desperation to end suffering. Now, I am not suffering, and so I do not abuse alcohol. Does this mean I WAS an addict, but now am not? Or does this mean that my mental illness mimicked symptoms of addiction? And what of my mother, who prays and goes to church compulsively? Are some addictions benign, or even helpful?

My friend used to be a binge-drinker. He drank anything, but wine was his thing: he’d buy a bottle of wine and drink the whole thing in an hour or so. We were drinking buddies, and for a while we were roommates, and we always kept a case of beer in the kitchen (Rolling Rock was everywhere at that time—remember Rolling Rock? we’d buy “ponies,” pre-chilled, thinking it would help us drink less, and then we’d drink at least twice as many 7-ounce ponies as we’d normally drink of the 12-ounce longnecks).

I just spent the past five or ten minutes trying to draft sentences to describe how we would “go out” (i.e., drink)—20-something kids both raised in strict old-country Catholic families, finally finding something that looked to us like freedom but which just turned into more hassle and pain. Blah blah blah. … Long story short: what happened was, I quit drinking after I was prescribed painkillers; and my friend quit drinking after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was prescribed medication.

Any parallels here? I don’t know.

I’ve read Robert Whitaker’s wonderful book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, about how mental illness is over-diagnosed in this country, and also overmedicated with drugs that don’t have proven long-term track records. Case in point: I know a person who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, anxiety, and depression, and the psychiatrist has prescribed 13 different psych meds. God only knows what kinds of unknown and unstudied inter-reactions they’re producing. This person has put on probably 50 pounds, cannot leave the house, and spends most of the day in tears. And since this “case” has been slotted into these medically-coded categories, the (underpaid, community-based) caseworkers won’t listen to the patient’s appeals to be tapered off some of these drugs.

As for my friend, it seems to me that his diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the treatment he’s received for it has brought him some peace and the ability to live a productive life.

So, was he once an alcoholic?

Does that classification judgment matter as much as the way he’s living today? I wonder. Met today with the medical director of a big rehab. He acknowledged that bipolar is over-diagnosed these days but said that, among people with true bipolar disorder, 60-80 percent have co-occurring problems with substances or compulsive behaviors.

Adam and God's hands in the Sistine Chapel

Adam stretches his finger toward “God,” on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

And as for religious addiction. I could write several chapters about my experiences with this one. I expect I will have to write those chapters, if I’m ever going to be free of the “God” that grows like bindweed around my life, choking it as I’m trying my best to grow it and learn to care for it.

There’s not exactly a plethora of information out there about religious addiction, but some time ago I came across an interesting paper about it in a journal called Pastoral Psychology. The author calls religious addiction “destructive soul work,” says it can “free the believer” from other behaviors/chemicals via substitution (just as workaholism can—because both are more socially acceptable than drugs, alcohol or sex addictions), and postulates that religious addicts try “to avoid pain and overcome shame by becoming involved in a belief system which offers security through its rigidity and absolute values.” She writes:

The God that religious addicts experience is reflected in their behaviors and attitudes. Religious addicts often feel that God sees them as dirty and sinful—so they sometimes make others feel dirty and sinful. Religious addicts feel like victims of God’s whims—so they victimize and abuse others. Religious addiction cannot exist in a vacuum; nearly every religious addict abuses someone.

Yeah, well. <sigh> There are so many stories I could tell behind this idea. The story about finding my cat dead on the road one Sunday morning at 16 and being forced to go to Mass instead of stay home and take care of myself. (Then feeling ashamed because, despite my mother’s nudges and glares, I couldn’t stop crying at Mass) The story of my mother asking what I’d told the priest in the confessional—and then telling me what SHE’D told the priest. Lots of other stories; and to write them would mean I’d have to talk about the ways my family dealt with sex and money, both of which they considered filthy commodities, the one to be traded, the other to be withheld for manipulative purposes—and I’ll leave you to wonder, in my family, which one was which.

My parents held paramount the notion that rules were more important than relationships, and even when I came into “the rooms” during my detox I had a strong compulsion to Do Everything Right so I could Get Saved. (And Catholicism—the religion of my family of origin—doesn’t even talk a whole lot about “salvation.” But in my experience it talks a whole lot about doing things right and not thinking for oneself.) A big part of my focus these days is accepting the fact that I can think for myself—not just that I’m able to, but that I ought to, that I have some sort of permission to do so from a power greater than myself, which quite often is my community in “the rooms,” including all these virtual rooms—and that I own my own life, and that this is actually the way my world is supposed to work.

And I’m trying to treat myself with more care and gentleness… Difficult, because this was not the example ingrained into me. I can do this with other people, it’s just so much harder with myself. Someone asked me the other day: “What if you could treat yourself the way your son’s mother would treat him?” Huh.

This song is for my old friend. Thanks for your questions, darlin.