Understanding Addiction within the LDS Community: by Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT

Addiction can be a difficult topic to understand.

Most of what the scientific community has uncovered about addiction can seem to go against LDS beliefs regarding “free agency.” However, it is true that addictive behavior robs an addict from the ability to engage in agency – making the topic of “willpower” controversial.

Current research shows the chemistry occurring inside the “addicted” brain differs dramatically from that of a “normal” brain. The addicted brain is diseased and therefore, not able to function in the same capacity or capability of one that is not. If this pivotal point goes misunderstood, it can cause unrealistic expectations regarding personal accountability, treatment, and sobriety that affect both addicts and the loved ones who are affected by an addict’s behavior. Unrealistic expectations are detrimental since they are followed by other feelings and emotions that further complicate and delay health (i.e. shame, depression, inappropriate guilt, anger, betrayal, decreased trust, decreased intimacy, doubt, confusion, self-hatred, suicidal thoughts, etc.).

Information that is important for all affected by addiction to know includes the following:

  • “Bad” behavior does not always translate into what would be deemed an “addiction.” Just because a person looks at pornography or masturbates once in a while, has a drink every now and then, plays a few midnight games on the computer or goes on a spending spree, does not mean this person is “addicted.” This is not to minimize unhealthy behavior which can cause legitimate issues within meaningful relationships. However, for a behavior to be considered an addiction there are certain diagnostic criteria that need to be met. A primary care physician and/or mental health provider can be helpful resources in providing proper diagnosis. Getting a correct diagnosis is important so that the corresponding treatment is also correct, applicable and useful.
  • Relapse is more than likely going to be part of the recovery process. Quitting an addiction “cold turkey” is not the experience most people have who successfully achieve sobriety. Having expectations that this is a realistic approach sets up individuals and their loved ones for failure. Progress is a process – a process that includes many small victories and losses. None of us experience perfection attempting change – much less so when there is a chronic disease such as addiction in force.
  • Honesty with others and self, coupled with accountability are vital to the process towards recovery. People who are successful in achieving sobriety from an addiction are usually involved in some type of group therapy (i.e. AA, NA, the church’s addiction recovery program or some other more formal inpatient/outpatient clinical setting). There are many groups and treatment centers available that address almost any type of addiction depending on the community you live in.

Addiction is usually referred to as a “family disease” because its harming influence reaches much farther than the individual level. The following is addressed to those who find themselves in a relationship with an addict – either spouse, child, parent, etc.

  • Addictive behavior should not be taken as a personal attack. This is understandably difficult since the behavior of an addict can cause such devastating effects on the lives and relationships of their loved ones. However, addictive behavior has little to do with the people surrounding the addict. The reasons that explain why addiction is present are complex and include a variety of facets of an individual’s make-up: temperament, personality, environment, genetics, family patterns, developmental delays, response to pain, coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills, etc. Therefore, the following sentiments – How can you do this to me? If you loved me you would stop.- are usually not useful in achieving a healthier family dynamic. It is important to remember that addictive behavior has nothing to do with the “love” an addict has for his family and the addict is usually not equipped with the necessary skills and tools to stop addictive behavior on their own. Seeing addiction through the “disease model” can be useful in stopping negative beliefs seeped in inappropriate blame and shame that are detrimental to all involved.
  • Co-dependency and enabling are common issues among the loved ones of addicts. You cannot do the recovery work FOR your loved one. You can only work on yourself and your responses to the addiction. This is why many spouses and family members find it useful to be part of a group therapy process. Al-Anon is a good example of such a group. Marital and individual therapy are useful tools as well, along with family therapy that includes any children involved in the family dilemma. These are resources which can help immensely with setting appropriate boundaries, expectations, communication styles and coping skills that see a family through to the recovery stage.
  • Since honesty and accountability are such important factors to an addict’s recovery process, how does one foster a safe environment where this is possible within the bounds of appropriate boundaries? This is an important question for loved ones to explore. The way we choose to respond and communicate about the addiction will affect the process. This does not mean that we cannot express emotion, grief, disappointment, and even feelings of anger. However, expressing these feelings in a direct, respectful and loving manner can be much more productive than falling into negative patterns such as screaming, ranting, threatening, blaming, guilting, and carrying on.
  • Self-care through an addict’s recovery process is vital. Otherwise anger, resentment and bitterness can take over and make reparation of relationships much more difficult in the long run.
  • Well-meaning friends and family will not always be great advice givers when it comes to dealing with issues of addiction. Because of the many myths, opinions and misperceptions surrounding addiction (i.e. tough-love, agency, willpower, etc.) it can be horribly confusing for those making decisions related to divorce, separation, kicking a child out of the home, legalities, etc. Getting information from objective and research-based sources should be a priority for all involved.

It is important for both addicts and their loved ones to know that recovery is possible! It is important to remember the concepts surrounding the atonement – how do these apply to the addict and to the loved one? Repentance and recovery are often a messy process – and yet the atonement offers its cleansing power as a constant in our lives. It is important to remember the doctrines based on self-worth, divinity and heritage afforded to all of God’s children – regardless of the struggles we face. Hope, love, and faith coupled with an educated stance on addiction, treatment and the recovery process are a family’s best bet towards success. I speak to the issue of addiction often on my blog – mormontherapist.blogspot.com- and welcome any further questions as well as any comments from those who want to share experiences related to this topic.

Helpful Resources:

The Disease Concept by the National Institute of Chemical Dependency

Addiction and the Brain’s Pleasure Pathway: Beyond Willpower by Nora D Volkow, MD

Change through Recovery from Addictions by James E Faust

“Another kind of change I wish to address is recovery from enslaving habits. They include disorders associated with alcohol, drugs, tobacco, eating, gambling, unworthy sexual behavior, and viewing pornography. I quote from a recently published book on debilitating addictions: “Substance abuse is a leading cause of preventable illness and death in the United States. The misuse of drugs ruins families, costs billions in lost productivity, strains the healthcare system, and ends lives.”4 It is a curse on society.

There are many kinds of addictions, and it is difficult for someone who has one of these serious addictions to change because some of them are mind-altering. A recent article on addiction said, “In the brains of addicts, there is reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, where rational thought can override impulse behavior.”5 Some addictions can control us to the point where they take away our God-given agency. One of Satan’s great tools is to find ways to control us. Consequently, we should abstain from anything that would keep us from fulfilling the Lord’s purposes for us, whereby the blessings of eternity may hang in jeopardy. We are in this life for the spirit to gain control over the body rather than the other way around.
Any kind of addiction inflicts a terrible price in pain and suffering, and it can even affect us spiritually. However, there is hope because most addictions can over time be overcome. We can change, but it will be difficult.

We begin by making a decision to change. It takes courage and humility to admit that we need help, but few, if any of us, can do it on our own. The Church has an addiction recovery program that has been adapted from the original Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous into a framework of the doctrines and beliefs of the Church. These 12 steps are found in A Guide to Addiction Recovery and Healing, which is available to priesthood leaders and other members.

A complete change in lifestyle may be necessary. We must desire with all our hearts, minds, and strength to overcome these harmful addictions. We must be prepared to renounce totally and absolutely our participation in any of these addictive substances or practices.”

Alcoholism and Its Effect on the Family by Tetyana Parsons

Alcoholism is also known as a family disease. Alcoholics may have young, teenage, or grown-up children; they have wives or husbands; they have brothers or sisters; they have parents or other relatives. An alcoholic can totally disrupt family life and cause harmful effects that can last a lifetime. According to U. S. Department of Health and Human Services and SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration) National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, seventy six million American adults have been exposed to alcoholism in the family. Alcoholism is responsible for more family problems than any other single cause. According to Silverstein (1990), one of every four families has problems with alcohol.


  1. says

    Thanks for all of this information. As a child of an addict, I can say I have had to rework how I deal with my parents and how they act etc. It’s good to know these things! Thanks so much!

  2. says

    Thank you for this information. I feel like I understand a little better what people are going through when they have this illness.

  3. says

    I don’t think it goes against the teaching of agency any more than putting someone in jail does.

    Let’s say someone shoplifts and doesn’t get caught and he doesn’t think it hurts anyone. So he keeps doing it, and graduates to bigger thefts and finally gets caught. He is put in jail as a consequence. He had his agency, but his choices led to losing his freedom.

    When a person first makes the choice to drink or look at porn, for example, he is using his agency. If he continues to make that choice, it can become addiction. It has a consequence of loss of agency–because he has given it away. It was not taken from him–he gave it away a little at a time.

    The blessing comes when the person–shoplifter or addict or whatever–realizes he has harmed others, and seeks help to break the cycle. He can regain his agency little by little. Maybe he is in jail for a while, or in pain or in therapy for a while, but as the change in his life becomes manifest, he will eventually regain peace, and permanent freedom, having his agency fully restored to him.

    That’s what the atonement is all about. It takes a lot of hard work, and a tiny seed of faith growing until it’s strong, but it can happen.

  4. says

    Natasha, I’m so glad you posted this. It is very helpful for all of us to know so we can be supportive to those we might know who struggle with any kind of addiction.

  5. says

    Thank you for sharing this. As someone who has worked with addicts for the past 10 years, there is A LOT of misunderstanding surrounding addiction. And enabling does nobody any favors in the long run.

  6. Roblynn says

    Thank you so much for this informative post. Like everyone in the world I have dealt with addiction in family members and not always the right way. It is good to be reminded of the right ways to respond to their behaviors.

  7. says

    “Bad” behavior does not always translate into what would be deemed an “addiction.”

    I really like this. It’s easy to equate bad behavior with and addiction. However, I also liked that you stated that the “bad behavior” can cause legitimate issues in having healthy relationships. No matter WHAT the bad behavior is.

    Thanks for writing this!

  8. says

    Very informative post. Thank you so much for the detailed information on a topic that is too often ignored. It is so hard to go through this with family members and so important!

  9. Anonymous says

    this is a hard topic. thanks for covering it.

    i’m not sure, though, that this should be set up as going against lds beliefs at all. leaders have often talked about how addiction robs people of the ability to choose. i don’t think we need to make the topic of willpower controversial, just understand that the a key reason to have self control in the first place is to maintain the blessing of agency in one’s life. avoidance is a lot easier than recovery from addiction. as you say, not all bad behavior is an addiction, but as we do all we can to avoid bad behavior in the first place, we can keep ourselves more free.

    i also think some measure of will has to enter in to want to get the help needed to overcome the problem, too. if choice doesn’t enter in to seek recovery, chaos of one’s life will eventually demand change.

    also, on another note, i believe there are family support groups with lds addiction recovery in some areas.

  10. Anonymous says

    This is SO needed in my life at this time. My Father has an addiction and it has been to pornography, we are now seeing our Dad back in the light after loosing his job and possibly facing harder times ahead. I pray for him and all those who suffer from this as well. I think we are easier to forgive those who have been alcoholics but not so much someone with a pornography problem, we need to see the good in these men and women as well; Thanks SO much again for adding this topic into discussion- this filth is EVERYWHERE and SO easy to get even with filters; I wish somehow it could be banned from the computers’ but what do you do? I understand both sides of a person and I am so glad I am not the one who can judge these individuals, The Lord is in charge of this. Thanks again.

  11. says

    Thanks so much for this post. I “graduated” from treatment in February, and I can honestly say that a major turning point for me was recognizing my addiction is a disease rather than a fatal character flaw.

    I can’t say I’m grateful for my addiction, but I’m so very grateful for the understanding I’ve gained of the atonement and the true nature of forgiveness.

  12. Anonymous says

    I have a quesion for Braden since he used to be a bishop: Do bishops get training about how to deal with people with addictions and/or knowledge about what resources are out there for addicts and their families ie. the LDS Addiction Recovery Program manual, meetings, etc?

    I’m mostly asking because as the spouse of an addict, I have felt like most of the bishops (5-6 different ones) we have had over the past 11 years of dealing with a pornography addiction haven’t been very helpful or understanding of how this has affected me, the wife, and have mostly just worked with my husband, usually just taking away his calling and temple recommend, and saying “Don’t do it anymore” but then just leaving him to combat this alone.

    It wasn’t until a year ago when an LDS Family Services therapist told us about the ARP program that we’ve finally gotten some real help with this problem. When we told our bishop about it later and that we had been going to the meetings, he was like “What is that?” and acted like he hadn’t heard of it. I hate to think of how many other couples in our ward (and worldwide) are struggling with addictions and don’t know about this wonderful and life changing program that has made all the difference to us.

    And to MMB, thank you for addressing this topic this week. I hope it will help others see that this is a real problem that many faithful, active church members struggle with.

  13. Anonymous says

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you for taking the time to get this information out. I am associated with a not for profit that is dedicated to educating and helping those that are afflicted, associated, or affiliated with Pornography addiction. Please visit our site to learn more about our efforts, and lean more about Donald L. Hilton’s fantastic book on pornography addiction. salifeline.org

  14. says

    excellent post. Just a couple of comments :
    LDS Social Services department has undergone some significant changes in the last few months to address the needs of members in this area. Stakes will have more information to give to Bishops – regarding local community resources that they can recommend. They are building a comprehensive nationwide database for Bishops to access with a 24/7 hotline. It will be a great help for families who don’t know who to turn to.

    My second comment is in regard to addiction treatment philosophy. ON the one hand is is a good thnig that so much research is being done to address what happens in the brain. Personally I do not buy wholly into the “disease model”. I do believe that the brain is injured and damaged by the over use of substances, eating disorders and even the participation in pornography changes the brain chemistry causing it to malfunction. However, it is my conviction that you can be healed and free from addiction.
    This goes against traditional modalities and philosophies – but in God all things are possible and I would rather engage in a treatment plan for restoring the body and mind to good health that is based on eternal principles than not. This does not mean I am anti-treatment or therapy. I work in the addiction field and have a family experience with a son who has been an alcoholic for 15 years.

  15. Anonymous says

    I am very glad that there is blunt talk coming from LDS leaders on this subject. I am sure it must be a HUGE issue if they are talking as open and bluntly as they are in general conference.

    I know it may a minority – maybe even a very small minority – and I know even bringing this up will probably anger some. But one area that I don’t see much bluntness on is that of the importance of intimacy in marriage. I am not just talking about sex. I fight tears constantly in church looking at other wives that put their arm around their husbands in church. I think that happens about once every 5 years for me even though I have told my wife I LOVE when she does this. When I have very little love (hugs < 1/2 a second, never placing her head on my shoulder, etc.) is the time I fight the hardest not to turn to the mild porn habits I once dabbled in.

  16. Anonymous says

    Although the program is called “Addiction Recovery” it is helpful for even the smallest of “bad” behaviors. My husband and I were told about the program from a counselor at LDS Family Services. We didn’t go at first because we didn’t think he was an addict. He held a job and was able to function in normal life. About a year later (when problems with pornography were still happening) we decided to go to a meeting. They are the best thing ever! Even if you aren’t being labeled by a professional as an addict you will find motivation at these meetings to be better. Do not procrastinate making a change! Today is the day to get help. The program revolves around true and sincere repentance. Who doesn’t need that!

  17. Drogers says

    This is interesting…

    Heroin Addiction Recovery

     “If you or a loved one
    is addicted to heroin, don’t face it alone. There are many addiction recovery
    facilities that can help. Contact your physician, a local counseling service,
    or a local 12 step support group for recommendations. Treatment of heroin can
    be difficult, but many wonderful people have found success with addiction
    recovery programs and are able to live a full and complete life without heroin..…”

    Go to  Heroin
    Addiction Recovery   OR   goo.gl/T3oEB  to
    read more…


  18. Drogers says

    This is interesting…

    Heroin Addiction Recovery

     “If you or a loved one
    is addicted to heroin, don’t face it alone. There are many addiction recovery
    facilities that can help. Contact your physician, a local counseling service,
    or a local 12 step support group for recommendations. Treatment of heroin can
    be difficult, but many wonderful people have found success with addiction
    recovery programs and are able to live a full and complete life without heroin..…”

    Go to  Heroin
    Addiction Recovery   OR   goo.gl/T3oEB  to
    read more…



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