What Is Your Name? The Demons of Addiction

I talked to five friends this week, each of whom are therapists and each of whom were trained in a different kind of therapeutic method or school of thought.  I asked each the same question, “Will you tell me everything you know about addiction?”

And each one of them said, “We like to think there are addicts and there are the rest of us.  But the first thing you need to know is we are all addicts; every single one of us.  There is a large spectrum of addiction and severity of addiction and some people function at greater levels than others, but we are all addicts.”

“Okay, then describe addiction for me.”

“Addiction is a coping method that helps us avoid pain or anything that is too vulnerable, too shameful, too scary, or simply too much for us to handle.  Addiction offers a withdrawal, a distraction, a way to avoid hard issues.  It’s highly personal too, meaning your addiction is as unique as your pain.  The greater your pain, the greater your shame about yourself.  And the greater your shame, the greater your addiction.  As the addiction grows the more the feeling of powerlessness grows until a switch takes place and you feel as if you no longer have the addiction, but the addiction has you.  Even if you know it will do you great harm, and even if you know it will cause great harm to those you love, and even if you know it will destroy whatever is good in your life, you still choose it.”

“So let me get this right.  You’re saying that addiction tends to usurp our identity, possess power over our wills, lie to us and promise us things it can’t deliver on, and wants to harm us and those we love.”

“Yep.  That sounds right.”

“You know, listening to this as a Christian pastor, this sounds demonic.  Would that be crazy to call this demonic?”  (Now here’s where I thought that professionally, these therapists could not go there with me, but each one, Christian or not, responded, “No.  It’s not over the top.  Most people who are confronting their addiction will readily call it their personal demon.”

I want to offer this paradigm as a way for us to enter into this Gospel story from St. Mark, chapter five.  Of course it’s not the only way into this story, but perhaps it is an urgent way for us to listen to the story in our day and in our place. So in the safety of this sanctuary,

I want to invite you to become open to epiphanies about your own demons, your own addictions on a broad continuum, and the pain lies beneath it, in order that the Risen Christ who is present with us now might continue to be truth and grace for you.

MARK 5: When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.  Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

We don’t know much about this man.  We don’t know as a little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up.  We don’t know what evil and traumatic thing may have happened to him that continued to follow him as he got older.  We don’t know how it was that he came to be in this place where the only home he had left to go was a graveyard on the furthest margins of his community.  But what we do know is that there was a lot that led up to this moment and now he is utterly alone in his misery.  People have tried to help him.  People have tried to isolate him.  People have tried to forget about him, but when the town is asleep in their beds they still hear him howling and wailing in the cliffs.  The children shuttered at the sound.  The mothers remember when they helped midwife his birth.  The father’s remember coaching him in little league.  And now his persistent screaming in the night terrorized the whole community because they knew that it was not only his demon, it was their demon.

The therapists I talked to said, “Our culture treats addiction like a medical problem, like a disease.  Certainly there are chemical and biological issues at play, but emotional and spiritual healing cannot take place simply through will power.  It must be addressed in relationship because under every addiction there is a yearning for relationship and when the trauma of a broken or abusive relationship leaves you fragmented, the craving for and repulsion for relationship is intensified and that’s where the addiction grows.”

The odd thing about our story is that as horribly conflicted and ambivalent as this man might be, he comes out of isolation and hiding to be in some kind of relationship to Jesus:

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him.

He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”  For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

Perhaps this is the crux of the story.  Perhaps no one had ever asked this question of him before.  No matter who you talk to, naming addiction is fundamental to healing.  Every AA meeting starts the same way – “Hello.  My name is Ryan and I’m an addict.” This mantra holds two very tenuous truths together at the same time, that I am both “Ryan” and I am an “addict”.  Most of us wont allow both to be true.  Martin Luther called this the paradox of always being at the same time both “saint and sinner.”  For those suffering from severe addiction, the lie is with them every day of their life, “You are your addiction.  That’s it.  Your addiction makes your choices for you, defines you, and directs you.”  But naming our addictions puts us back into the paradox and returns our truest name back to ourselves.  When we name our demons we can now tell the who truth about who we are, “Yes, we are addicts.  But we are more than addicts and we are more than our addiction.  There is something true about me long before my addiction – I am God’s Beloved.  And not even my addiction can take that from me.  Not even I have the power to screw that up.”

A friend of mine who is both a pastor and a recovering alcoholic told me, “My AA group was more honest than any church group I’ve ever pastored, and in our brokenness we found freedom.”  What if our church was a place safe enough to tell the truth about ourselves – the whole truth?  This man who came out from his isolation to meet Jesus had become so enmeshed with his demons that his very identity was usurped.  Not even the man could tell where the demons stopped and he began.  Jesus simple question, “What is your name” brings distinction between the person and the addiction.

The story continues:  The demon said, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside.  The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.”   He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

Here’s the thing that we might not be ready for:  Loving each other in the midst of addiction costs.  It costs a lot. Being on a path to healing costs.  It costs a lot.  Not just the individual, but it costs the whole community.  For this town in the region of Garesene, it cost this man’s community two thousand pigs.  Last summer we bought a pig for the pig roast and it fed a whole community of people – 200 lbs of pig cost us about $500.  That means at that rate 2,000 pigs would cost exactly a million dollars!  What an extreme cost.  This was likely the entire livelihood of an entire village.  No wonder Jesus wasn’t asked to stay for dinner.  But there’s a way in which Jesus was inviting the entire community into the healing of this man and to bear the cost of his healing.

We can no longer pretend that addiction is the problem of an individual.  Addiction is a systemic problem.  Addiction is a communal problem because the man didn’t get to where he was on his own and he wont return to wholeness on his own either.  He needs the community and the community needs him for their own wholeness.  But it costs a lot.  Who’s healing is bound up with your healing?  And what price will you put on that healing?

The story ends by saying:

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened.  When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.  Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well.   Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him.   Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”   So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

What a miraculous thing:  the man goes from screaming at the furthest margin of community to sharing his story in the Decapolis – the very center of community.  The twelfth step in every AA program is this:  “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”  Sounds like echoes of a baptismal covenant to me.

The man wanted to go with Jesus.  Sounds like the “Christian thing to do”, but Jesus said, “Look.  I can understand why you would want to leave here and have a redo.  But your redo is right here, because here is your community.  Here is the place where your addiction took root.  Here are the people who have both helped and harmed you.  Here are the people who don’t know what to do with you nor their anxiety about what to do with you now that you are not howling in the caves.  And here are a people who need naming and need freeing relationships and need you to tell your story.”

On the one hand, this was only the beginning of healing for this man and his community.  What happened next would be hard and slow.  It may even result in some more pain and wondering if he should just go back up to the tombs again.  But he would be brought back to community knowing that his experience with Jesus had fundamentally changed everything.  And it was that hope that possessed him now.

We tend to say there are addicts and the rest of us, but if we are honest with our selves we know we are all addictive people.  We all have places that we go to to escape ourselves.

Man, that’s scary to name.  I imagine some, if not all of you might be in a place where just talking about this brings up some major fear and anxiety and that is sure understandable.  But I promise you, Jesus is speaking to you the same word of grace as you come out of hiding: “You are more than your disease.  You are more than the labels you are given.  You are first and foremost made in the image of God, claimed by God and you are free.  Free to be human, free to be in relationship. You are free to be whole.  And I’m here with you, as you much as you push and pull on me.  As much as you yell and scream.  I’m not here to torture you.  I’m here to restore your true name and restore you to community.”


community curate, theologian artist, Bonnie's lover, baby's daddy, and God's beloved.

16 thoughts on “What Is Your Name? The Demons of Addiction

  1. Chelsea Globe says:

    Thank you for your insightful reflection, Ryan. As someone who comes from a family of addicts and lost a sibling to an addiction, it is both challenging and affirming to know that addiction is a systematic problem, not just one person's “problem.” I would like to challenge the end of your story: how can Jesus help us? Jesus isn't here as part of the community, as much as we Christians like to say so! I would turn it around to say that WE need to be Jesus to each other, and invest ourselves in our community to heal our addictions, as Jesus taught us to do in this story. It is on US, all together. We have to take the lessons of Jesus forward for each other. That's what I think it means to follow him. 🙂

  2. Hayden says:

    I love you bringing that addiction is communal- especially in the healing of addiction.A good read for my morning!

  3. Patty Linson says:

    I love what you wrote friend.  I am writing a book, right now, about my partner of 17 years who went to jail.  The story is amazing.  He was worth 100 million, and bilked millions from investments from friends, family, and those believing in him.  My story is weaved with addiction and the deterioration from this.  My experience was my own confrontation of my demons.  I have transformed myself and have been in program for 21 years.  My Alanon addiction was more fierce than heroin.  Addiction…. we all have.  It is when we are able to not empower anything other than our most High God to invent our lives.  Ciao and God Bless  Patty

  4. Carl Geo. Austin says:

    I blogged (http://www.diospsytrek.wordpress.com) about the same passage found in Matt 8 but didnt look at the parallel verses in Mark 5 ~ a slightly different story ~ i've been a licensed therapist for many years & i very much believe in demons and have written books on spiritual warfare.
       also, i attend a Christ centered 12-step program: Celebrate Recovery ~ i go not so much because i'm working on any specific addiction but because i believe healing takes place in community & i recommend it to many of my clients ~ Jesus healed Lazarus but his family & friends rolled away the stone and unwrapped the bindings ~ in other words they participated in setting Lazarus free ~ Jesus does the healing but the love & support of the community is integral in setting the addict free & ensuring recovery.
       blessings on your ministry.  carl

  5. CurtisMSP says:

    If addiction is a demon, then we all have demons. But most people don’t like to think that they do.

  6. ShelbyCobra says:

    Knowing firsthand the devastation of addiction, I can attest that EVERYONE has demons and if you are not escaping from yourself through the word of God, then your addiction lies somewhere else. After reading this article, I have completely new found hope for myself because I am still in the state of my addiction, but the epiphany came when realizing He chose me. He chose me to be a person of hope to others. I CAN overcome this 8 year addiction to prescription pain meds among a couple substance issues, which aren’t nearly as much a problem as the pain meds. If I am to be what He has called me to be and do, I MUST tell MY truth. I began using the meds recreationally (to get high at college to ease my feelings of inadequacy and anxiety of where I was). My first semester at State went fine, but it was after receiving a grade of C on an interior design project (my major) that I’d spent 12 consecutive hours working on to meet the project criteria! The worst of it was the comment scrawled on my project….”Not very creative,” that just crushed me! From that moment on I was angry and felt inadequate in my major. I like to think I am creative, but I just wasn’t cutting it for my own standards. My drawings weren’t as nice or realistic as others, which in turn translates as inadequacy to me. I started stealing muscle relaxants from my stepdad and he didn’t notice for awhile until my addiction became to great to deal with. At one point I was rushed to the ER for an unintentional overdose. I was horribly embarrassed and ashamed, but I still could not stop. I still hold immense feelings of complete inadequacy in life. I’ve hated myself for a long time and have not known how to love myself again. The only way to love myself again is through Jesus. My chest is beginning to feel tight as I fight back tears, wanting this to be the last day of self-hatred. Addiction is a demon caused by the hurting of others, intentional or not. Through this article, I feel I’ve discovered my cure and his name is Jesus. If I let Him direct my path, I know I will succeed. I may not be creative in visual arts, but perhaps the literal arts are more my thing, as I’ve always been good with words! Please pray for me! Thank you Jesus!

  7. ShelbyCobra says:

    I also read Chelsea Globe’s comment about we need to be like Jesus to each other, which is kind of what I was trying to say in my initial comment. I need to be a beacon of Jesus’ Word, which will require my healing through the telling of my story to others. Secrets keep people sick. Secrets can kill. One thing I learned from my family history is that they like to keep issues private, which is the secret-keeping I am talking about. If we keep secrets from each other, how can we help one another when they’re truly in need? Many addicts fear judgment, which seems to be so commonplace today in churches, sadly. I know from personal experience that even after an addict has come to Jesus and is no longer in their addiction, they are still judged by the past impressions on others while in their addiction. I come from a small, very religious town and fear the whispers of warning their friends not to be my friend because I am or was an addict. All I want is to be accepted for who I am physically, mentally, and spiritually. My anxiety comes from being told I do or say weird things sometimes, which makes me clam up and not be my true self around others. I’m still a normal person with feelings, weird things said or not, that does not mean I am not a nice, caring, generous person. These are feelings I’ve needed to let out and know that God is guiding me through it, whether others will accept me or not, but I think this article should help some people who are hesitant to accept me once I am in recovery. I’ve been thinking about attending the Celebrate Recovery meetings, I’m just so scared and shy with strangers!

  8. Tom Sprague says:

    I would disagree with you concerning the support of the community being integral in setting the addict free. Jesus declares differently! In jn.8:36 Jesus says–“if the Son makes you free–you are free indeed!” Community may be great, but they cannot set one free!! You can read my personal testimony at http://www.israellights.com

  9. Ricky Chapman says:

    WOW!!! Yes write. this is SOOOOOOO well done. Your “gift” is for writing!! My name is Ricky aka Iola and I am an addict!! I have never writin/typed Or even said this out loud before!!! Because of this article and specially your testamentary (the way you wrote it) I have a REAL understanding!! I cant wait to share this with my husband, an AA member for 10 years! God blesses You! And us ALL Amen

  10. Jacqueline Jentz says:

    Amazing! I have been clean of opiates (heavy morphine I.v. user) for 10 mnths only because Jesus came to me my 1st night of withdrawals and grabbed that evil demon out from me…I feel in love with Jesus and started reading my Bible first time I picked one up to read since I was a kid ,and when I got to ‘mark 5’ I said YES,EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED TO ME! ” cutting himself with stones” was to me, shoving needles into my arms! Now reading this I can’t believe you quoted ‘mark 5’ ….you see it too! Awesome! God bless you <3

  11. Patti Blount says:

    Just because one person said your paper was not very creative, does not mean it wasn’t. I struggle with “fear of man” as I suggest you do too. It means what others think about you, or even what you perceive they are thinking. So, because we are afraid of various things such as rejection, abandonment, being judged, we conform to what we think others want us to be in different ways to keep ourselves safe. So, in that sense, we could be addicted to acceptance by others, which is a dangling carrot really, because we will not get it completely ever from anyone. So, we turn to Jesus, the only One who does love and accept us unconditionally as we are. Although, I’ve been a believer for many, many years now, I am progressively taking hold of this reality (His Love for me) more and more, and true freedom is the result. It is a slow progression at times, out of the dark hole, but progression none the less, and it is the perfect way to complete healing and deliverance from this addiction. I pray that as you receive HIs love in increasing measure, you will be delivered from self-hatred and will begin to love yourself again. He is the Only Answer to all of our Addictions!!!

  12. Eva says:

    I was a addicted to cocaine, among other drugs, and plagued with anxiety and withdrawals. I wanted to come clean on my own since I was so ashamed for my family to know. I was riddled with anxiety most of the day. I was convinced I was going to be committed. Well, after about three months of this, I was heading to bed, scared of life, as usual, and all of a sudden it came into my head to pray. Pray, say The Lord’s Prayer. That prayer made so much sense to me that time, even though I had said it numerous times before, I never understood it like this time. After saying it approximately 5 times and saying “Please get these demons out of me. Please! I trust you Jesus and only you with my entire heart and give up all of my worries to you”. I could literally feel like something was being pulled out of me. It started at my head and came out my feet. This happened several times and then I fell asleep. When I woke up the next day, I looked into the mirror and saw ME again! You have to realize that I was afraid of my reflection. I was such a broken human being that I couldn’t even bear to look at my own reflection! I looked clean and refreshed. I truly smiled for the first time in months! I felt SO GOOD! I have never taken drugs again and to this day I thank God for saving me. I don’t know where I would be without him saving me that night 20 years ago. Thank you Jesus, sincerely with all my heart!

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