Monday, September 29, 2014

Closing the Dopamine Highway of Addiction

"It starts out as a little trail in the weeds, but every time we walk down the trail it becomes more clearly defined." My doctor friend said this as we discussed a topic that many would probably rather avoid discussing in a church meeting: addiction.

According to the doctor, the destination to which the trail leads is dopamine, "a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers." In reality, dopamine's role in our brains is much more complex than this (see 7/2013 Slate article).

But the doctor's point is well taken. Walk down the trail often enough and it eventually turns into a broad and well worn highway, with dopamine acting like flashing multimedia billboards signalling the way to the desired pleasure response. When this pathway becomes enslavement to self destructive or harmful behaviors, we call it addiction, regardless of which negative behaviors are involved.

In this instance we were discussing an April 2014 general conference address by Linda S. Reeves about pornography, a topic that some find uncomfortable in any setting, especially at church. My doctor friend is grateful that the church is addressing this topic, but he felt that the talk was inadequate. It smacked too much of traditional tactics that have amounted to saying, "Go home and don't do that anymore, brother;" an approach that fails to appreciate the essence of addiction.

My doctor friend said that we are experiencing a pornography addiction epidemic. "When you have people continuously falling off a cliff, doing first aid on those at the bottom of the cliff isn't enough; you put up a fence at the top," he said.

In fairness to Sister Reeves, she had 12 minutes to address the topic of pornography for a very broad audience of millions of people of all ages and spiritual levels. She was mostly addressing prevention in her talk, so maybe she can be excused for inadequately discussing recovery. After discussing the importance of filters on devices she said:
"Filters are useful tools, but the greatest filter in the world, the only one that will ultimately work, is the personal internal filter that comes from a deep and abiding testimony of our Heavenly Father’s love and our Savior’s atoning sacrifice for each one of us."
Statistics tell us that virtually all young people will be exposed to pornography by age 12 regardless of our best efforts to shield them. So it is important for them to learn what to do when these encounters happen. It is important for them to develop their own resilience in dealing with porn.

Prevention resources can be found on the church's Overcoming Pornography website. Primary In Zion offers this list of resources (2011). It is clear that society's trajectory is away from imposing cultural filters that would buffer family members from pornography, so families and private organizations must undertake this effort on their own.

The church has also undertaken a number of recovery measures. It currently offers a professionally designed addiction recovery program that is available to people dealing with addiction, family members of those dealing with addiction, and church leaders that need to know how to help people. In some areas you can anonymously attend meetings where you can get help. There are even call-in meetings.

A program known as Fortify is available for free to teens. Adults pay a one-time fee of $39. Part of this subsidizes teens in the program. Fortify is run by a nonprofit organization called Fight the New Drug that also offers a variety of (free) help methods and ways for volunteers to help others.

Your Brain On Porn is far edgier than church sponsored or related offerings. It lacks the kind of spiritual aspects seen in church resources, but it addresses everyday issues faced by people (especially guys) that habitually view porn.

As we discussed pornography addiction in church, a sentiment was expressed that men might turn to pornography if they find their marital sexual life unfulfilling (or even absent). I raised a strong voice against this idea. Marital health is tremendously important and it requires the active involvement of both partners. But it is completely inappropriate for anyone choosing to engage in destructive behavior to blame their spouse for this choice. If a marriage is having problems, it is important to get help. It is inappropriate to resort to porn for a dopamine fix. This is a way to introduce additional problems; not a way to fix existing issues.

Many people are still in denial about the negative effects of pornography. But it is easy to see the flotsam of wrecked lives and families that gimbal in the churn of its wake. It is not benign, nor is it a victimless form of entertainment.

Many people feel trapped, but there is help, hope, and healing available. The dopamine highway of destructive behavior that a person has developed may never go away in this life. But it can fall into such a state of disuse that it becomes overgrown and broken up. It's not an easy thing to accomplish. But there are many that have done it and that will tell you that others can do it too.

There is hope for preventing and dealing with pornography addiction.

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