“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11)
My latest big adventure is my new job as an online substance abuse disorder counselor. There’s so much to learn, but I love to study, so it’s all good.
I will be conducting three-hour recovery groups, so part of my training is to sit in on groups facilitated by other counselors and learn from them. On Monday night, I sat in on a group led by my friend Leanette. There were five clients.
The second half of these group sessions is educational, and Leanette’s topic on Monday was “Addiction 101.” She played an excellent video about anhedonia and how it can lead to relapse, and we had some great discussion about it.
A bit of explanation in case you’re not familiar with the term anhedonia. You may recognize the word hedonism, which comes from the same root word. A hedonist is someone who runs after pleasure as his main purpose in life. Anhedonia, therefore, is the inability to experience pleasure, or a loss of interest in things that normally would interest an individual.
Addicts are hedonists in a sense, because they are obsessed with the next high, whether it is to seek pleasure or avoid pain. Addictions result from the brain’s adaptation to the presence of a drug that artificially elevates the brain chemicals that bring a sense of wellbeing and reward. Over time, the brain stops producing those chemicals, and if the addict doesn’t keep using the drug, he will experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Consider also that some addicts live secretive, criminal lifestyles that are quite intense, exciting and dangerous. That produces a need for continued adrenaline-producing activities for the person to feel normal.
Most people in recovery would tell you that recovery from addiction is not fun, exciting, or glamorous. Yes, it has many rewards, but in the initial phases, it may feel like all of the motivation to pursue other activities that formerly brought pleasure just drains away. The simplest way to describe it is, “blah.” So, while the addict is withdrawing physically from the drug, and prone to depressive symptoms anyway, he or she may also experience anhedonia. Both the physical high and the psychological excitement are gone.
At this point the person may think, “If this is what sobriety is going to feel like forever, I can’t do it.” This triggers them to use the drug or alcohol again. This is relapse, and it is an incredibly common experience in recovery.
It is especially important, then, for addicts to begin engaging in safe, sober activities that kickstart the brain to start producing those lovely endorphins again. They might have to “fake it ‘til they make it,” but they have to start somewhere. Attend a meeting, take a walk, throw a ball, get a dog, meet some sober friends for dinner.
This whole topic, and the ensuing discussion in group, made me reflect on my own experiences with anhedonia. I haven’t experienced it chronically, and I am not a recovering addict, so if you are, please don’t think I am minimizing your struggle in any way. This was just a recent experience that came to mind, and it helped me connect with the more serious process that happens when an addict is struggling to stay clean and sober.
Last Saturday, I was home alone, resting and reading on the couch. I had the impulse to munch on some Tostitos. I know from lots of experience that once I start dipping into that bag, I’m hooked. I know that if I want to have some Tostitos, I need to get a small bowl out of the cabinet, fill it with Tostitos, and put the bag away.
But I didn’t do it this time because I wanted to indulge myself. I wanted my own little hedonistic salty-crunchy party.
My plan for that afternoon was to write. I’m working on several writing projects concurrent to starting this new job, so I have to intentionally schedule time for writing, or it doesn’t happen. This is a discipline I work to maintain, because living a disciplined life is of high priority for me as a woman of God.
So as I was overindulging on chips and lying like a slug on the couch, I started feeling grosser and grosser, and increasingly disappointed with myself. I had felt that “blah” feeling, and had gone to food to try to feel better. I realize now that my compulsive snacking had been driven by a bout with anhedonia.
Eventually, I forced myself to move. I got up. I put the Tostitos away. I asked myself what I needed to do to change my emotional state. It’s not complicated. I had to get my behind off of that couch and do something different.
The answer was, I needed to write. But I needed to go to another place, a different environment (with no Tostitos handy). So, I took my laptop up to the club in our neighborhood and sat on the balcony overlooking the lake.
I sipped on a cold drink and gazed out at the beauty and my pleasure receptors started firing. There was a rising “yes” in my spirit.
I fired up the laptop and typed a sentence, and then another. And two hours later, I had several pages of writing on the screen. It didn’t have to be the most brilliant words in the world. It just had to fulfill my intentions for the day. I could now end my day with a feeling of satisfaction that no quantity of chips could ever provide. And I decided to forgive myself for my Tostito relapse.
You may ask what this has to do with Scripture coming to life. I’m not sure.
But what comes to mind is the whole biblical idea that discipline is its own reward. When we move against laziness, selfishness, apathy, gluttony, and addictive behavior—which is admittedly hard work—we often find contentedness and peace waiting on the other side.
Maybe it doesn’t make sense to go after contentedness and peace when the flesh is craving excitement and self-indulgence. But I think this is another shift the brain makes after we practice sober disciplines for a while.
Our appetites change. We desire real relationships, real conversations, authentic experiences of joy and communion. We’re no longer satisfied with the world’s high. We crave a higher high. A God-shaped high.
Then, when anhedonia hits—and it does hit us all sometimes, addicts and non-addicts alike—we don’t panic about it. We remember that we know how to find center again. We know that feelings come and go, and they may provide important information, but they don’t have to be the basis of our behavior or choices.
We learn how to find our joy in the originator of joy. We remember to seek out others on the journey who let us be ourselves without judgment. We embrace discipline as a gift. We surrender the flesh hour by hour, day by day, so that the Spirit can take the lead.