One of the Behavioral Science courses I have been privileged to teach over the past 9 years addresses the issue of addiction. Most times, students in that class have a front row seat to the ravaging effect of addiction through the lived experiences of a loved one.
The prevailing question from students I have to address in class goes something like this “so why can’t they just stop this behavior seeing that it’s negatively impacting their lives”? I typically smile and nod my head in agreement because indeed, addiction impacts not just the individual but everything they associate with (family, work, social life, spiritual life, u name it).
Family dynamics and living arrangements are oftentimes recalibrated because of someone’s addiction. Even more frustrating is when a person continues to relapse despite the immense support given them. Students are surprised to learn that addiction is no respecter of person, gender, age, religion, economic background or intellect; it comes for anyone at anytime and can remain for as long as it needs to.
But in answering this question of “why can’t they just stop the addiction”, students in this course are given a special assignment. First, they have to identify a habit that they enjoy indulging in every day. It has to be an old habit; one they have developed over a couple of years. Next, they have to abstain from that habit for at least 72 hours and lastly, they must journal this 72 hour experience in a 3 page paper and submit for grading.
Some of the common habits people identify are drinking coffee, Instagram, Facebook, checking WhatsApp messages, taking selfies, posting videos and watching specific shows. While most expect this to be an easy task, I on the other hand just smile and wait to read their experiences because I know they are unprepared for what lies ahead.
The statistics for what seems like an easy assignment are grueling. At least 60% don’t make it through the 72 hour time frame. Those who are able to survive to the end develop a new sense of appreciation for what it means to be “addicted”. Among their documented experiences are high levels of irritability, physical illness to include headaches, disillusionment, emptiness, sadness and confusion.
In their own words, “they are not themselves” during that time and all they are focused on is counting down to the 72 hours so they can return to that thing which they love to do. For those with spouses and children, they document increased arguments during that time.
As we discuss their experiences from this assignment, many are humbled and more empathetic towards the plight of those with addiction. Having struggled for 3 days, they now understand what it means for someone to be struggling for years. I explain that the purpose of the assignment is not for them to cease being concerned about their loved one but rather to approach their intervention with grace, compassion and empathy.
We all are familiar with the adage of walking a mile in someone’s shoes before critiquing them but in this case, 3 days of planned abstinence cannot be compared with a lifetime of addiction. It’s nowhere close to a mile but at least ½ a mile or a few steps is better than no steps at all.
So before you write off or judge someone, try to walk 1/2 a mile in their shoes. The goal is not to agree with their actions or addictive behaviors but rather to understand and empathize so you are better positioned to assist those who are truly willing, but helpless.
It’s what Christ did for us, shall we not do same for others?