The most unexpected experiences - and scenes - reveal life more fully so we may move through it more freely.
Suppressing is Only Step One
As a former daddy’s girl as well as breeder of a next generation daddy’s girl, a scene that yanks pretty vigorously at my heartstrings is in the movie Traffic. It’s when Michael Douglas’ character, Robert, discovers his drug-addicted, high school daughter, Caroline, naked and high in the bed of some deviant dealer.
As he gently strokes her hair and kisses her forehead, Caroline is too delirious to even grasp the mortifying circumstance. When she opens her droopy eyes, she smiles euphorically and murmurs, “Hi, Daddy.”
It’s not until the end of the movie that we encounter Caroline clean and sober, relaying to a room full of recovering addicts what her recovery experience entails. But for the majority of the film, she’s hooked on crack, desiring only to continue getting high despite the miserable depths to which it takes her.
Like all addicts, Caroline thrives on the temporary ecstasy and escape from reality that accompany the high. But the actual fruits of her addiction are dismal and just plain rotten. She winds up in bed with guys who couldn’t care less about her. Her relationships with those who love her most become painfully strained.
So when it comes to recovery, addicts aim to associate their substance abuse not with the quickly passing euphoria, but instead with the depressing wreckage it leaves in its path. Consequently, they no longer want to abuse. It’s ultimately about healing and transforming their will, not simply suppressing an urge, although it may start out that way.
This is why one of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Steps is making “a decision to turn our will…over to the care of God”. And God, more than anyone, wills fruitful, prosperous actions of us, never catastrophic ones. But often, like Caroline, we’re so caught up in the short-term pleasure and comfort that accompany our destructive actions that we become blind to the havoc they’re wreaking. We actually defend them, either hiding or turning a blind eye to the damage they inflict on us, our lives, and our souls.
Alright. So, in high school, I struggled hard with an eating disorder. I binged, purged and starved myself day after day to the point that my clothes hung off of me for lack of anything to cling to. It was ugly. I was constantly at war with my appetite, either totally suppressing it or indulging uncontrollably and purging whatever I could.
The habit became so ingrained that the toxic effects–the fruits–grew more and more rotten with time. My body ceased to function properly. My menstrual cycle came to a halt. I was constantly cold and fatigued from lack of nutrition. On a moral level, I was frequently deceiving the people who loved and cared about me, harming relationships with my lies.
But I was so unglued that in my mind, the other areas of my life needed to conform to my disease. I’d grown comfortable with it and procured some strange pleasure in retaining it. I believed my only options were to strain to suppress my relentless urges to binge or simply indulge in them uncontrollably.
I would sit, lying that I’d already eaten, and watch my friends ingest entire meals plus dessert, wondering how they didn’t have the urge to either go purge it all or continue putting more and more food into their bodies until they were sick. It simply didn’t seem possible for me to not want to overeat.
But you know what? The impossible is absolutely possible and that’s where I stand today. After much time, effort, prayer (from my faithful parents, not me at that time), and patience, I reached the freedom of neither wanting to binge nor starve myself, but simply, consistently nurture my body and enjoy the food with which I do it. I became so familiar with the negative repercussions of overeating or not eating enough that those actions became less and less appealing.
At first it just felt awkwardly forced. I recall once consuming an entire bagel lathered with cream cheese, and then sitting uncomfortably allowing my body to absorb it, wondering how this was supposed to be freedom. No, freedom would be to purge it all or succumb to that impulse to have another, and then head to the pantry to find even more food to devour. Freedom was indulging in my urges, despite the ugliness that doing so unleashed in my life, right?
Wrong. Freedom, as Matthew Kelly explains it in The Seven Levels of Intimacy, “is not the ability to do whatever you want. Freedom is the strength of character to do what is good, true, noble and right.” Of course I was able to indulge in my compulsions to binge and purge. Doing so, however, did not make me a free person, but simply a slave to my twisted will.
Thankfully, my story has a happy ending. Nowadays, it’s rare for me to consume foods or amounts of food I won’t feel good about putting in my body. I wouldn’t characterize myself as a perfect eater by any means but I truly no longer have a desire to binge or purge. My will has been transformed and that’s what Caroline and any recovering addict is seeking–to not want to acquiesce the desire.
Unfortunately, since we’re broken beings, will and knowledge don’t always go hand in hand. It’s one thing to know that something is bad for us, but quite another to not want to do it. Bridging that aggravating gap requires opening our eyes and familiarizing ourselves with the rotten fruits of the action, which are always far more potent and permanent than its benefits.
In Josef Pieper’s book, The Four Cardinal Virtues, he explains, “the effort of self-control pertains only to the less perfect steps of the beginner, whereas real, perfected virtue … bears the joyous, radiant seal of ease, of effortlessness, of self-evident inclination.”
In other words, the effort to restrain ourselves from succumbing to a destructive desire is only supposed to comprise the first step of the process. Further growth and greater strength will lead us to this point of “perfected virtue”. It is there where we joyously, easily, effortlessly avoid detrimental, corrupt conduct simply because we don’t have the desire to partake in it.
I’m still deep in plenty of destructive, rotten fruit-producing habits. I’m still a sinner, just like everyone else. Just because I’ve made progress after an eating disorder, doesn’t mean there aren’t a plethora of other places where my knowledge of the consequences needs to transform my will.
But whatever it is that someone struggles with – whether a drug addiction, eating disorder or what have you – dropping it begins with a desire to be free of it, for it to no longer govern our will.
Once we desire that freedom, we can take the first step in forcing ourselves to no longer engage in the behavior, but that’s simply not where we’re supposed to stay. As we climb further and further out of the pit of addiction and dependency–entrusting our will to a God who wants freedom and prosperity for us far more than we want it for ourselves–our will is slowly but surely remolded into a more beautifully dependable one that is congruent with our knowledge.
Like Caroline says of her recovery journey, “On the good days, I feel like I get it, like it all makes sense.”
That’s the ultimate goal: many good days when our desires make sense and are rightly ordered, not painfully suppressed.