Feeling down about not getting that job, so you reach out to a friend for support and feel much better as she tells you “you’ll get them next time”. Finding yourself out of breath at the last lap of that marathon and at the brink of giving up, when you suddenly see your family on the sidelines cheerleading for you, the support you just needed to finish the race. Shame creeping up on you as you realise how difficult it is to overcome your addiction to porn, but your friends from the recovery group pat you in the back saying, “You are not alone. We can do this together”. You see hope light up at the end of the tunnel.
Why bring up these situations? It’s because in the face of struggle and difficulty the one thing that encourages every one of us to keep going is the connection we have with others. But not just any connection. It is a deep and genuine bond with another person, where we feel seen, heard, valued and understood.
If you have seen my Youtube vlog (My 2016 dating fast: how I recovered from sex addiction), you will remember that the most important thing for my healing journey was to experience God’s Mercy. What I failed to mention, however, is that although we fully experience His Love through the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and His Mercy through the sacrament of reconciliation, we also experience His Merciful Love through the people around us. That was the most crucial asset in my journey towards healing from my struggle with sexual impurity: a deep and genuine connection with those in my life.
Everything we were taught about addiction is wrong
For years there has been a story told about addiction: that addiction is about pleasure from the chemical highs experienced when taking alcohol or drugs. This was no different when it came to sexual addictions. Non-for-profit organisations like Fight The New Drug educate people extensively on the effects pornography has on the brain. In Talitha Ministries we tried to understand what happens in our brains when we get ‘high’ on sex. But British journalist Johann Hari busted this myth about addiction through the research he had encountered, concluding, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection”.
Robert Weiss, an expert in sex addictions, says that addiction experts – including him self – have been advocating this fact for years: the opposite of addiction is connection! But then, why do people experience chemical highs when addicted to sex? Well, it’s because the dopamine and oxytocin highs we experience in addiction are the very same chemicals released in our social interactions and when we develop our relationship with others. Whenever you catch up with a loved one over coffee, oxytocin is released into your brain strengthening your bond with that person. And as you say, “let’s catch up again soon!” your brain is releasing dopamine to continue developing a relationship with your loved one.
Shame researcher, Dr Brene Brown summed it up in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: “as a matter of fact, we are wired for connection. It’s in our biology. From the time we are born, we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually”. Even in our very brain we have been imprinted with the desire for mutual connection. God, our Father and Creator Himself designed us for this purpose of unitive love, by intricately designing and wiring our brains for this very purpose.
God created us for connection to one another
During one confession, a priest had told me something that touched my heart and soul: that my sexual desires stemmed from my deep human desire for love, intimacy and wholeness. Today these words ring true to the epidemic of sexual struggle we find in this day and age. Many of us grew up with the belief that we need to seek sex in order to satisfy our desire for love, intimacy and wholeness. However, these desires cannot be fulfilled on the physical level. The fulfilment God imprinted in our souls was one that Pope Paul VI was inspired to share with the whole Church: that “man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium Et Spes, 24).
Saint John Paul the Great expanded this truth in his teachings of the Theology of the Body: from the very beginning of time, man and woman were created in the image and likeness of God. This image and likeness to God, Saint John Paul explained, was the image and likeness of the Triune God, the Holy Trinity – “Let us make man in our image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26). St John Paul emphasises that the communion between the three divine Persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – is the image and likeness by which God had created us humans: the communion of the three divine Persons of God that is a complete and loving gift to one another.
This is why sex is only fulfilling within the sacrament of marriage as an act of complete gift, unity and commitment between a man and a woman, mirroring the very self-giving love and unity of the Holy Trinity. At the very heart of our humanity that is what we are ultimately striving and yearning for: a personal union to one another that is fulfilled in the gift of one’s self.
Loving connection as the asset towards healing
What can get in the way of a deep and genuine connection to those around us is shame. In a previous blog post we have touched on the subject of shame as a culprit to prolonging the struggle with sexual sin. Dr Brene Brown described shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging, which creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection”. Shame never prompts healthy personal development, but is a destructive mechanism to the person’s self-esteem and sense of identity.
Many times we use shame to prompt behaviour change in others or in ourselves, saying “you won’t be liked unless you stop that addiction” or “I won’t be worthy of love if I can’t give up porn”. But rather than prompting healthy behaviour change, it becomes a destructive mechanism to our self-esteem and sense of identity. Ultimately, change that is driven by fear only leads towards more fear, a sense of powerlessness over our own shortcomings and further isolation from those around us. So, what can actually bring about true healing to the life of those struggling with addictive sexual behaviours? The very thing that God created us for: loving connection.
We can really see the difference that connection to others makes when we look at Portugal’s reintegration program for recovering substance addicts. For years, Portugal had been using the Western method of addiction recovery, where drugs were criminalised, addicts would be incarcerated and treatment consisted of rehabilitation away from society or individual psychological treatment. But as the Portuguese government realised that the addiction rate kept increasing, they decided to take a different approach. In 2001, the government decriminalised illicit drugs and used all the funds they were spending on incarceration into helping addicts to reconnect with society by providing them with paid employment, more treatment opportunities and social support. And, guess what? According to the British Journal of Criminology, after 15 years of beginning this experiment problematic drug use decreased in Portugal by 50%!
It is all because these recovering addicts were given the chance to reconnect with the wider society. They learnt how to develop healthy and trusting relationships with those around them, rediscovering their purpose and the gifts and strengths they are able to share through their work. “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”. And in this same way, Jesus Christ heals us from our iniquities through loving connection.
Jesus didn’t just perform miracles, remove evil spirits or cure the sick. He Himself connects with our very humanity in order to heal us, just as He did for the Samaritan woman at the well. This Samaritan woman, a woman who was shamed by her own townspeople, rejected for her promiscuous life, had an intimate encounter with the Lord, and that very encounter was what led her to turn away from her sinful ways and run back to her town shouting joyfully “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did”. Unlike the townspeople, Jesus met her in her brokenness with nothing but loving mercy towards her humanity. Just as Jesus Christ had sought to deeply connect with this Samaritan woman and show her authentic and pure love, so are we called to connect with one another in the midst of our impurity and sinfulness. Only mercy can heal us from our sexual addictions and prompt us on the path towards true love and eternal happiness.
“Above all, love one another deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins”1 Peter 4:8
Brown, Brene (2010). Excerpt from The Gifts of Imperfection.
Hari, Johann (2015). Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong.
Pope Paul VI (1965). Gaudium Et Spes.
Sri, Edward (2006). Five Key Features of the Theology of the Body.
Weiss, Robert (2015). The Opposite of Addiction is Connection.