What is the root cause of the spiritual illness called addiction?

All addicts have a fundamental inability to live peacefully and contentedly. An addict uses his or her drug or behavior of choice to induce a temporary state of relief from a deep, incessant discomfort with life. But what is the root spiritual cause of addiction? Rabbi Shais Taub brings light to the spiritual needs behind an addict and addiction here.

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The real problem behind addiction is a spiritual problem

The only way an addict can ever have a real choice to stop self-medicating the symptoms of addiction is if he or she can understand and treat the real problem that gives rise to the symptoms to begin with. But what is the real problem the addict is attempting to treat by using?

The real problem behind addiction is a spiritual problem, as evidenced by the fact that the real solution is a spiritual solution. Let us now ask, what is the exact nature of the spiritual problem? What does it mean to be spiritually sick? In other words, what is the root cause of the spiritual illness called addiction?

Addicts are sick for God

The addict is sick with a yearning for God and can only become well by having some contact with God.

It sounds grandiose, I know. What are we saying? That all addicts are really super sensitive, spiritually passionate seekers?

Not exactly.

More aptly stated: All human beings have a deep-seated need for spiritual contact. But most people can also live their lives without it. Addicts are people who, for whatever reason, are unsettled to the core and cannot handle the business of life without maintaining a continual and acute awareness of the Divine. Absent such higher consciousness, they are miserable and sick. What makes their dilemma fatal is that their drug of choice will actually produce in them short-term affects that simulate the release and relief that can only really be had through spiritual consciousness. Consequently, the only real treatment for their condition is to make sure that they get the “real thing” instead of self-medicating with the fake stuff, for if they do not get the real thing, they have no choice but to take the fake stuff.

In other words, for most people, spirituality is a luxury, something to be sought after more “basic” needs are met. Addicts are somehow different in this respect in that for them, there can be nothing resembling a normal life if their spiritual needs are not met first.

Why addicts use a drug of choice

Of course, we don’t mean to say that only addicts are capable of truly yearning for God. In Song of Songs (2:5), King Solomon describes the feeling of being “lovesick” for God. That is not the point anyway. It is not the longing for spiritual wholeness that causes addiction. What makes an addict an addict is the combination of two factors: (1) they are profoundly disturbed and unsettled with their own existence as an entity apart from God; and (2) for reasons unknown, they can somehow briefly simulate relief from this condition by taking their drug of choice.

This is the trap of addiction, and it is the real problem we have been trying to define. The real problem that lies at the core of addiction is that addicts are people who are in dire need of a relationship with God but are able to substitute fulfilling this need with a behavior that is essentially self-destructive.

Really, the drug of choice becomes the addict’s God. This is not meant as mere rhetoric. Addiction is idol worship in the most fundamental sense of the term—turning to something other than God to do for you what only God can do.

About the author
Rabbi Shais Taub is one of today's most respected young scholars of Jewish spirituality and practice. National Public Radio called him "an expert in Jewish mysticism and the Twelve Steps." He is the author of God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction.
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