Chapter One: The Mechanisms of Powerlessness

For addicts, drugs work. They work really well and really fast. They provide an immediate change in the soul. A change that is so awesome that it supersedes any previous experience. The only problem with this wonderful treatment, is that it wears off. If we, as addicts, could take that one Monster Lortab, smoke the Perpetual Bob Marley Blunt, or ingest some other type of super substance and achieve the eternal buzz, we would all be healed. The only problem is that no such beast exist. Substances wear off and demand repetition. Thus, a drug cycle develops. One must take the substance, receive the desired effects, then repeat the process after the effects of the drugs are gone. Drug cycles have been around for thousands of years. Even scripture mentions them, “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaints? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long at the wine, those who go in search of mixed wine…At last it bites like a serpent and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things. And your heart will utter perverse things. Yes, you will be like one who lies at the top of a mast. They have struck me, but I was not hurt; They have beaten me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake, that I may seek another drink?” (Proverbs 23:29-35) The cycle of use is well documented in this proverb which was written almost 3000 years ago. This tells us that the addictive effects of substances have existed since antiquity.

Additionally, when the effects of the substance wears off, it can generate feelings of guilt, shame, and depression. Oftentimes, we feel guilt over the amount or the way that we used the substance, and shame because of what we did while under the influence of them. When the effects wear off, the old feelings and emotions, which many of us were trying to medicate, have suddenly re-appeared, only now, they are coupled with guilt and shame. Or, we just feel sad because the party is over. As Craig Nakken writes, “This type of high attaches the unknowing addict to the grief process. The trance always fades away and sensations always disappear, leaving the addict with the original pain plus the loss of the pleasurable sensations. Over time, satiation addicts are forced to act out more often (if they’re behavioral addicts) or increase their dosages (if they’re substance abusers). The satiation high gains control over the person, always promising relief from pain. Ultimately, however, the pain returns, deeper and more persistent, until it turns into grief and despair.” (1) The very fact that we get “high” connects us to a cycle for the simple reason that it goes away. When it leaves us, we may experience some loneliness without it. But, we know how to fix that, simple, repeat the previous steps and attempt to re-capture the ever allusive “perfect high”. (see appendix A)

Addicts become powerless over this cycle. This means that they don’t have the ability to break the cycle. Addiction is all consuming. It takes control over the entire human being: soul, body, and spirit. In this section we will explore all the details of this powerlessness. The first step of the twelve step program states, “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction and our lives had become unmanageable.” Anyone who has been around people who have this disease has seen the unmanageable piece of this step. It is easy to see how our loved one is out of control with their lifestyle. It is apparent to us. However, to the addict, it is not apparent at all because they are powerless. Let’s begin to examine the powerlessness of addiction three angles: emotional, physical, and mental.
Emotional Powerlessness

What is it that takes place when people get involved in addictions? If we examine the desired effects of the substances, it will give us some insight into the root of the problem. To begin with, we must start with what Robert Schewebel, in his seven challenges program calls, “Challenge 2: We looked at what we liked about drugs.” (2) Over the years of working with both adolescent and adult addicts, the following is a common list of what we liked about drugs.
1. High
2. Escape reality/problems
3. Calming effects
4. Entertainment
5. Increase self-esteem

In no way should this list be considered exhaustive. The reader, who may be struggling with substance issues, is encouraged to complete their own list. Taking these one at a time, let’s discuss this list.

What is the number one reason why people use drugs? “Survey says: The High.” This magnificent feeling is one of the most pleasurable euphoric experiences that exist in the natural world. It is the primary reason why people chase the dragon into jails, institutions, and death. Next, drugs also afford us an opportunity to escape reality. When the pressures of life become to great, a little mental vacation may be in order. This is a very popular notion in many songs about drinking and drugging. Additionally, substances have a calming effect which is affectionately known as “chilling out.” This relaxing time is very therapeutic for many. Furthermore, substances can take a normally boring situation and make it very entertaining. The second largest “trigger” for adolescent users, at least that I’ve encountered, is boredom. Thus, drugs take a normally mundane situation and make it extremely entertaining. Lastly, drugs make us feel more comfortable inside of our own skins. Most of us like the person we are when we are high better than the person we are when we are sober. Because when we are high, we feel funnier, more talkative, emboldened, and more social. We get better looking and so does everybody else. (Again, this is an idea that is popularized in many popular songs including, “Ten feet tall and bullet proof“) Substances completely eliminate any fear within us. The fear of rejection, begin unwanted, and being unlovable, vanish while we are under the intoxicating effects of the substance. This makes us like the person we are when we are high better than the person we are when we are not. Substances eliminate the fear that is inside of us and place us in an alternative reality where we reign as kings and queens. Additionally, the high insulates us and provides us a “safe place” against such attacks on the fears that lurk inside of us. Thus, we are more comfortable with “us” when we are high which increases our self-esteem. If we ended the discussion of drugs here, this would help us very little. It would only solidify the desired effects in our thinking and trigger possible drug cravings. No, we must dig deeper . We must find the root of the issue. The desired effects, what we like about drugs, will give us some clues as to where the root lies.

It has been said that, “drugs are only a symptom of the problem.” It’s true. Drugs are only the manifestation of the real issues. So, what is the problem? Looking at the previous list of desired effects will give us some insight into the problem. We have already agreed that our list is what we want drugs to give us. Well, if we need the drug to give us these effects, it is a foregone conclusion, that without the substance we don’t have these effects. Logic suggests that if we don’t have these desired effects without the substance, then we must have the substance in order to get them. It must be true that something exists inside of us before we take the substance. Logic also suggest that if we don’t have these effect, what we do have is equal and opposite to the desired effects. So, rather than being High, we may feel depressed. Rather than escaping our problems, we feel trapped in our reality. Instead of being calm, we struggle with anxiety, stress, and fear. We feel bored and desire to be entertained. Lastly, we like the person we are when we are high better than the person we are when we are not. Hence, we struggle with self-esteem issues. Let’s diagram this out.

Column A Column B
1. High ——————— Depression
2. Escape reality———– Trapped in reality and problems
3. Calming Effects———Stress, anxiety, and fear
4. Entertainment————Boredom
5. Increase Self-esteem—–Low self-esteem

Using this analysis, we can plainly see that drugs are not the problem. For addicts, they are the answer. Hence, simple removal of the substance does not fix the problem, it only intensifies the desire for the answer. The problem is what is inside of us which is listed above in Column B.

Most of us never knew that we felt this bad (see column B) until we knew that we could feel this good (see column A). Consequently, once you know that you can feel that good (column A), you never want to go back to ever feeling that bad (Column B). When someone suggests to us that the substances are harming us or our families, we become defensive. To give up the substance means, in our limited understanding, that we must exist perpetually in the state of “Column B.” This is simply not acceptable, and so we develop defense mechanisms to protect our answer. (this will be the subject of a later chapter)

This relationship gives our substance of choice significant power over us. In a sense, it becomes our god or our “higher power.” We become dependent upon drugs/alcohol/food/sex for our change from column B to column A. The reliance upon a substance to effectively induce a “mood change” moves us from one spiritual plane into another. Scripture describes this relationship.

In the book of Revelation, God is pouring out a series of plagues to drive people to repentance. God is doing this in order to prevent people from continuing in lifestyle patterns that are self destructive. Also, these lifestyle patterns, by their very nature, distance an individual from God. Hence, a jealous God is provoked to wrath. The wrath of God is not given because God is angry and vengeful and wishes to mete out punishment upon the defiant mortal. The wrath of God is the other extreme of His Great Love. When the people He loves so dearly are engaged in destructive lifestyles, He will send disaster in their direction to drive them to repentance. We read an amazing story in the ninth chapter of Revelation. It states, “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by the plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” (Revelation 9:20-21 ESV) The word that the English Standard Version translates as “sorceries”, is the Greek word “Pharmakeown”. The essence of the word is “the use of or the administering of drugs.” (3) It is the word from which we get the English word “pharmacy.” What is means, in its present context, is the use of an illicit substance to move from one spiritual plain to another. This is exactly the process that we are describing. When we feel like Column B and we take a substance to feel like Column A, we have effectively engaged in what the bible identifies as sorcery.

We have previously said that addicts only go to one of three places. Jails/Institutions, death, or clean are the only three options for those truly trapped in addiction. What this biblical reference tells us is that when things on planet earth are the worst they have ever been, there will be people who will continue to look to drugs as their higher power, in essence, their god. Despite the obvious negative effects, people will continue to persist in “pharmakeown” as a lifestyle. This is not just some over spiritualized assessment. The fact that addicts only go to one of these three places has been observed by two Harvard sociologist.

As the story goes, a sociologist did some studies in juvenile criminology on a group of 17 year old young men. When he finished the study, he put the results in a box in the basement and moved on. Some fifty years later, two younger and completely different sociologists found his work and decided to track down the then seventeen year olds who were now in their seventies. Now, these sociologists are not addiction people but they did put a section in their book on arrest involving substances. Their results were truly amazing. What they found was that substance use peaked usually around age 19. It remained somewhat constant throughout the lifespan with slight decreases in the late twenties, but nowhere near abstinence. Then, at age 46, there was a tremendous decrease in the number of subjects who continued to use drugs. What happened? These subjects were either in prison, dead, or they were no longer using substances. (4) Amazing! Here is an objective and measurable study, that wasn’t even looking at addiction and it found the truth that AA/NA has been saying for years. Addicts only end in one of three places. Our biblical reference juxtaposed with this study in criminology illustrate that addiction will continue to exist even in the harshest of circumstances, and continues till we are locked up, covered up, or sobered up.

As previously mentioned, emotional dependence is just one of the factors that make us powerless over drugs. In the next two sections, we will look at two additional factors: the mental and the physical.

1. Nakken, Craig, The Addictive Personality, Understand the addictive process and compulsive behavior, Center City, MN, Hazelden, 1996, page 4.

2. Schwebel, Robert, The Seven Challenges, Viva Press, Tucson, AZ, 2004.

3. Thayer, Joseph, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 2005, page 649.

4. Sampson, Robert, Lamb, John, Life Course Desisters? Trajectories of Crime Among Delinquent Boys Followed to Age 70, available on-line @

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