Addiction and Recovery

By Mercadante, Linda | The Christian Century, March 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

Addiction and Recovery


Mercadante, Linda, The Christian Century


If addiction is truly "the elephant in the living room," the problem that no one admits seeing, I would contend that there is another elephant in the room: the theologically confused way we think and talk about addiction.

By addiction we mean primarily uncontrollable drug and alcohol abuse. In the past few years, however, the term has been applied to such problems as overeating, overspending, immoderate seeking of sexual gratification, extreme religiosity and other behaviors deemed excessive and out of control. Addiction has become a familiar diagnosis throughout our culture.

Alcoholics Anonymous and the addiction recovery movement have been pointing to this elephant for many decades. Bill Moyers joins in this effort with a five-part PBS series Addiction: Close to Home, which begins airing March 29.

We may not be a more addicted society than other societies have been--though our material abundance may make certain behaviors easier to pursue--but we are unique in believing that it is inappropriate, misinformed or judgmental to discuss these problems under the umbrella of morality or theology.

In this vein, the television series sees itself as "challenging outdated perceptions of addiction" and moving us away from "myths, misunderstandings, and moral judgments" when we consider the bondage of addiction.

Indeed, one way the addiction paradigm has gained momentum has been by positioning itself against moral or religious approaches to addiction, especially any that attribute addiction to immorality, lack of will power or, worst of all, sin. In this reframing of the issue, addiction is said to be a medical problem, not a moral problem. Oddly enough, however, the movement has also borrowed heavily from theological concepts, which tend to sneak in the back door. This elephant is not mentioned in Moyers's series, but its tracks can be found.

The PBS series was prompted by Moyers's own experience with an adult son, William Cope Moyers, who is in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. The five one-hour programs present the human face of the dilemma. Although Moyers leans heavily on the addiction-recovery paradigm, he does not mention the expanded use of the term. Instead, he restricts his focus to the more scientifically verifiable cases of alcohol and drug abuse. The series begins with a "Portrait of Addiction," the personal stories of recovering addicts. The second show examines "The Hijacked Brain," neurological research on addiction. The third, "Changing lives," looks at some treatment options. The fourth, "The Next Generation," deals with breaking the cycle of addiction in families. The series ends with "The Politics of Addiction," highlighting the efforts of the "recovering community" to ensure that treatment is made widely available.

An amazing array of resources and activities accompany this production. In addition to six free-of-charge viewers' guides, addressed to different audiences, there is a Web site, online bulletin board, multimedia comic for teens, as well as writing and art contests, hotline, information numbers, local initiatives, a video conference for educators, and a town meeting/call-in show. With the press release I received a pair of bright yellow shoelaces, labeled on one side "Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home" and on the other "Take a Step," presumably for me to thread through my sneakers and wear on April 1, national "Take a Step Day." All this represents an impressive effort to involve more people in identifying, intervening in and treating addiction.

The series does some things very well. It sets out to counter societal rejection and (sometimes conflicting) stereotypes of addicts; for instance, that they are "other" people, that they are genetically determined, that they don't want to quit, and that the recovery movement "lets them off the hook" regarding personal responsibility. In doing so, the series reiterates several key themes of the addiction-recovery movement. …

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