Principle 1: Understanding what we are up against
The addiction didn’t appear overnight. We developed the addiction slowly over time, by accustoming ourselves to arouse lust in our minds, whether through viewing inappropriate material or through self-pleasuring and fantasies. And we did this many thousands of times. And every time we did this, yes, every single time, we were blazing neuron pathways in our brain that kept getting stronger and stronger. And today, these pathways are deeply ingrained in our minds.
Also, there are many levels of this addiction. The fewer times we acted out on lust, the less defined the neuron pathways will be in our minds, and hence, the addiction will be at a less advanced stage. This is vital to understand and should serve as a powerful incentive for us to do everything in our power to stop these behaviors now. Because every single time we act out on lust, we are making the addiction worse, and harder to deal with for the long term.
The symptoms of this addiction are twofold. Firstly, we have accustomed our minds to crave the chemical rush that lust gives us, in the same way that an alcoholic craves alcohol. We have often learned to use lust as a drug for self-soothing purposes. We crave to ‘lose ourselves’ in lust to ‘medicate’ our feelings of inadequacy, guilt and depression, or even simply as an escape from the realities of life. The second symptom of the addiction is that stimulation triggers a much stronger arousal for addicts than it does in normal people. We have become hypersensitive to stimulation, to the point that we feel powerless when faced head-on with lust. This is actually a medical/psychological condition that can be tested through scientific devices. In the mind of someone with this condition, the dopaminergic pleasure pathways in the brain are triggered much faster and more intensely than in normal people.
It is important to understand that as an addiction, this is not something we can remove by simply talking ourselves out of it. A therapist may be able to help us discover why we became addicted in the first place, but that alone is not enough. Now that we have these pathways engrained in our minds, all the understanding in the world won't change the fact that we have this problem, in the same way that understanding a broken leg won't heal it. It is also important to understand that once the addiction has advanced to a certain level, it will likely be there for life, as the saying goes: “Once an addict, always an addict.” What that means is that once we have trained our minds to use lust as a type of drug, we must learn to keep far away from lust. And no matter how much progress we might think we’ve made in this struggle, once we let ourselves take that first “drink”, we will feel powerless all over again. In the 12-Step literature, the addiction is compared to an allergy. If someone has an allergic reaction to peanuts for example, they can’t get close to them without getting an allergic reaction. And even if they haven’t had peanuts in 20 years, the moment they ingest peanuts again the allergic reaction will return in full force!
As one of the 12-Step pamphlets says:
Lusting, for us, is like riding a roller coaster. Once started, it is nearly impossible to stop. Therefore, lust must be stopped where it begins, with the first drink. Getting out from under the influence of lust, therefore, requires us to avoid getting on board in the first place.
Our addiction to lust is like the alcoholic’s problem with alcohol. Just as the alcoholic cannot tolerate one drink of alcohol, we cannot tolerate even the smallest drink of lust. Lust always leads to more lust, eventually making us drunk with it. Once drunk, the urge to act out is impossible to resist. Just a little lusting simply doesn’t work for us.
But as scary as all this may seem, it is not really so bad. Someone who has a chronic iron deficiency can still lead a perfectly normal life, as long as they take his daily iron pill. Someone who has diabetes can also be fine, as long as they take their insulin. So too with us; we may have a type of disease but there are many techniques that can be used as our “medication" every day, to keep the addiction in check.
Instead of the standard Teshuvah model, we need to begin to change our entire attitude. We learn the tools and techniques of how to sidestep the lust instead of trying to fight it head on. And we learn how to give our will over to Hashem and live with His help, instead of trying to use our own strengths to fight something that is stronger than us.