Friday, May 17, 2013

Our addictions

A few days ago, I listened to a recording of a talk by Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twersky (the renowned rabbi, speaker and psychiatrist) on addiction. The talk was fascinating, partly because he spent some time linking the principles of the Twelve Step Programme to classical Jewish teachings. One important observation that he shared is that addicts will not move to tackle their addictions until they feel that they have hit "rock-bottom".
Sounds logical, right? A person gets sucked into a spiral of negative behaviours and keeps telling himself/herself "it's not so bad" because they still seem to have their life under control. Then, one day, nothing is under control any longer, they thud into a wall and are shocked into reality.
What startled me was that "rock bottom" isn't always what you'd expect it to be. Rabbi Twersky tells the story of a guy who had sky-rocketed into corporate success at a young age. He was well on his way to hitting the top echelons of a successful multinational, when he started drinking to "deal with the stress of the corporate world". Not acknowledging that his drinking was a problem, the fellow quickly lost his chance for promotion and was later fired from his company. Soon his wife took their young child and walked out. In short order, he lost his home and car. That was when he went to seek help from Rabbi Dr. Twersky. Unfortunately, he wasn't really ready to accept that he was addict, so the meeting went nowhere. 
Two years later, he returned to the doctor's office and finally confronted the mess he had made of his life. Rabbi Twersky asked him what had prompted him that time more than before to take drastic action. He replied, "I found myself panhandling for quarters on the side of the road. I, the guy who had handled multi-billion dollar accounts a decade ago, was begging for loose change". Imagine that? Losing his job, car, house, wife and child had not shaken him into sobriety. Panhandling had.
"Rock bottom" is something different to each person.
We each suffer from the addict's psychology of denial. We all have some deviant secret that we convince ourselves would never really interfere with us living productive- even successful- lives. Our addictions may range from laziness to technology to dishonesty to gossip to anger; we all have some negative habits that we're hooked on. And we console ourselves that everyone has their issues and we're still holding things together despite ours, so things can't be too bad.
Chassidus teaches that we're each a composite of an animal soul that is impulsive and a Divine soul that is clear-thinking and focused on growth and doing what is right. Our two souls battle daily for control of our minds and hearts, our words and actions. Some days the Divine soul takes control and we think clearly and behave as a Jew should. Other days, the animal within prowls our minds and we dump meaning and lasting-value for transient pleasure and imagined self-aggrandizement. Realistically, the animal is in the driver's seat most of the time, yet we remain blissfully unaware of the opportunities lost and the internal damage done.
Fortunately, Judaism believes that we don't have to hit rock bottom to be jolted to change. Torah- particularly the mystical teachings- is designed to help us focus, reorder our priorities and invest in meaningful relationships and areas of real self-growth. The more we learn, the better equipped we are to overcome our addictions and make a success of our lives. A smart person, says the Talmud, is one who sees and avoids negative consequences before they actually hit.
To paraphrase the first of the Twelve Steps:
"We admitted we were powerless over our Animal and came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." 

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