Confessions of a Former Bad Catholic

A reflection by Sarah

Another surprise blog post today. We seem to be in a season of life where the need for these is popping up quite often. After a very intense response to my ear injections yesterday which kept me riding an evil tilt-a-whirl all night, I’m spending the day working from home. Usually my vertigo episodes continue steadily for minutes to hours until coming to a sudden end, but last night I had about an hour of respite around 3am, during which time I read this article by Aaron Taylor at Ethika Politika. Taylor cites the story of Louise Mensch — a divorced and remarried Catholic who is not currently receiving communion due to her own convictions — as an example of the quickly dying (perhaps already dead) “bad Catholic” archetype:

Reactions to Mensch’s piece fell predictably into two camps. On one side, “liberals” decried Mensch for being self-loathing, for not dancing to the beat of the modern, sexually enlightened drum. On the other side, “conservatives” were baffled as to why, if Mensch really believed the Church’s teachings, she would not abandon her lifestyle as an “adulteress.” What both critics share is the belief that Mensch’s situation makes little sense because one cannot simultaneously uphold a set of moral standards and fall short of those standards.

Yet, until fairly recently in Catholic history, women and men like Mensch were easily understood by others in the Church as conforming to a particular type: the type of the “bad Catholic.”

“Bad Catholics” knew the moral rules taught by the Church, and they broke—even flouted—them, particularly when it came to sex. They did not, however, argue that the rules should be changed to confer moral approval on their behavior. Despite their moral failings, bad Catholics also tended to maintain a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices. They attended Mass, were devoted to the Virgin Mary, and expressed love for the Blessed Sacrament precisely by not receiving it in Communion when in an unworthy state to do so.

Taylor goes on to point out that Mensch’s story is not representative of what generally happens to today’s “bad Catholics,” who usually end up identifying as “liberal Catholics” or leaving Catholicism altogether. Without judgment upon anyone’s faith journey and without intending to stigmatize anyone who identifies as a liberal Catholic, I am inclined to agree with his basic point. This is what becomes of today’s bad Catholics. I’ve seen it myself more times than I can count. As I’ve already outed myself on the blog as a former Catholic, I can say openly that this article struck a strong chord with me. My own reasons for leaving the Catholic Church for a different Christian tradition are completely removed from any moral teaching or behavioral expectation. (If you must know, the final nail in the coffin was my inability assent to papal supremacy after significant theological study on this doctrine’s development, but perhaps that’s a post for another time.) However, after reading the article I spent the rest of the night — at least what time I wasn’t focused on asking God to save me from falling off the floor — in reflection. I suppose I ought to thank Eve Tushnet for this as well. Somehow I’m feeling both unusually brave and extra vulnerable after my recent read of her new book.

Confession time: not only am I a former Catholic, but I’m also a former “bad Catholic.” And today, I’m still entirely capable of being a bad Christian within my current tradition. Yet despite this awareness, most of the time I don’t feel free to admit it to anyone other than Lindsey and our parish priest. I don’t have permission to be a bad Christian, and when I think seriously about it I realize that this was also true during my years as a Catholic.

Let’s back up a bit…

Though sexual sin has never been a serious struggle for me, I’ve experienced seasons in which I’ve been unable or unwilling (or both) to behave morally in other ways. Everyone who practices rigorous honesty can identify with this to an extent. But somehow, it’s still easy to presume that if a person is engaging in unchristian behaviors, his/her spiritual life is nonexistent…or alternatively, that if a person engages regularly in spiritually healthy devotional practices, he/she must be living in a way that is fully aligned with the teachings of the Gospel.

As I thought about this last night, I was taken back to my college and early graduate school days. Without hesitation, I can say that I was a deeply devoted Catholic. I attended Mass almost every day, not out of compulsion but because I woke up each morning with an eagerness to hear that day’s Gospel proclaimed, to be present with the very small daily Mass-going community in my college town, and to be in the same chapel where bread and wine mysteriously became Christ’s Body and Blood despite my inability to see this happening. I had a consistent daily prayer rule and engaged regularly in theological conversations with friends. But quite often, my most profound spiritual moments were intertwined with my most immoral behaviors.

I was a very good student and never had trouble maintaining excellent grades, and during my freshman and sophomore years everyone in my residence hall knew me as the girl who would sit in the lobby and study for hours into the night. As I immersed myself in the works of Aristotle, Tertullian, Shakespeare, and Virginia Woolf, I would take frequent mini-breaks to say a Chaplet of Divine Mercy and snort an Adderall, crushing it beforehand with my copy of the Langenscheidt German Dictionary…or the Daily Roman Missal. There wasn’t an evening that passed without my calling out to the Theotokos, whom I referred to as “Mom” at that point. On weekends after I had finished all my homework, I would load my pockets with prayer cards, a rosary, some cash for cocaine, a fake ID, and head off to a party with my sorority sisters or friends from work. I remember one night when after my eighth jello shot and an untold amount of Bacardi and diet coke, I sat in the backseat of one of my sisters’ cars, pulled a rosary from my pocket and began praying it loudly on the way back to campus. My sisters all found this quite amusing, and I remember one requesting jovially, “Pray one for me too, Sparky!” Then, there was also bulimia — the “good girl’s addiction” that I had developed by age 12. Saying the Litany of Loreto or part of Vespers/Compline on my drive to the grocery store and between binge/purge sessions was a common practice of mine for several years.

I have no doubt that some readers are horrified by this point in the post. I’m anticipating getting some nasty comments and emails from pious individuals demanding to know what possessed me to engage in such appalling and irreverent behavior. Sometimes, I wonder that myself. I wondered about it at the time too, which is why despite going to Mass almost every day, more often than not I didn’t commune. And while I always took these matters with me to confession, I never attempted to approach this sacrament if my attitude was, “I know what I’m doing is wrong, but I’m not ready to repent and amend my life.” During these times I always held onto the hope that God would eventually guide me to a place of desiring repentance. I was a bad Catholic, and I knew it and accepted it as the present reality.

I’m sure my reflection today will also receive many responses from readers who are wondering, “Why are you beating up on yourself? Why can’t you see that these behaviors you’re describing are indicative of mental illness, not sin?” I’m not beating up on myself. I’m calling a duck a duck. Sin and illness are not mutually exclusive. Yes, there’s a level at which my culpability for some of these actions was compromised. Identifying these actions as results of sin is not the same as blaming, shaming, or implying that struggles with substance abuse and behavioral addiction are my “fault.”

Coming full circle to the article’s discussion of what happens to bad Catholics, I’ve seen stories similar to mine play out very differently in the lives of other people I’ve known. There are folks who leave Catholicism or Christianity altogether because of the pressure to be perfectly free from sin before ever approaching the church’s front stoop. They know that they can’t be perfect, so they stop trying. There are others who experience pressure from secular society to ease up on themselves to the point of dismissing Christian teaching altogether, or picking and choosing the parts that are gentlest. They hear from friends and mental health professionals that thinking about their struggles in any way related to sin is pathological and masochistic. Because issues of sin that are directly related to mental health can be highly sensitive topics, these people may find that the only way they can move forward in life is to reject the moral expectations of traditional Christianity and replace them with whatever counsel is helping at the moment. I’ve noticed that these things happen frequently when a person struggling with serious sin attempts to discuss it with a priest or pastor who is more concerned with quoting dogmas than attending to the needs of a deeply wounded soul. Another common instigator is members of the parish who do not trust their priests to steward the chalice, so they take it upon themselves to protect the Church from sinners. Such people use passive aggression or sometimes direct confrontation to inform the sinner that his/her lack of repentance is scandalous. And fellow parishioners who encourage abandoning truth in favor of grace also contribute to the problem.

At this time, I am (mostly) in a positive space with regard to the spiritual issues I’ve discussed in this post. But I am still a bad Christian, and still capable of fitting the “bad Catholic” archetype at times. I can’t speak for anyone else, but seeking space where I can be accepted as a “bad Christian” or “bad Catholic” has been necessary for my spiritual growth. Such spaces are woefully rare, and I can’t say that I’ve ever belonged to a parish where the community fully appreciates what it means to accept those who believe, have committed to being obedient, but do morality poorly most all of the time and are willing to admit it. It troubles me that at our current parish, neither Lindsey nor I feel free to abstain from communion when necessary. If we do, the culture warriors begin imagining that we must be having sex. Sometimes people indicate to us that they know exactly what our sins are, and if we aren’t ready to repent of them we shouldn’t even show up. If we aren’t able to commune for whatever reason on a given Sunday, we’ve taken to visiting a large parish where we can be invisible. It also troubles me that when I’ve been a member of parishes with more “liberal” members, I’ve not felt free to abstain from communion. In these settings, everyone — no matter how much or how little he or she knows about my spiritual life — has been eager to tell me that whatever is bothering me, I should approach the chalice because God loves me and nothing else matters. What’s a person to do when he or she feels caught in the middle of all this? I ask myself that question at least once a week, usually on our drive to Liturgy. But like Taylor, I am convinced that until we all make room once again for the “bad Christians,” the entire Church will suffer from their absence.

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Building a Life Together: Imagining the Possibilities

As we interact with more and more people both online and in person, we encounter new challenges that compel us to reflect on aspects of our life together in ways we have not yet shared on the blog. We’ve seen how others with different perspectives react to us and our manner of living our faith and sexuality, and a common thread we’ve noticed is that people often learn of our circumstances and question how likely we are to continue living as a celibate couple 5, 10, 25, 50 years down the road. Both here and in other places on the internet, we’ve seen it suggested that in all likelihood, we’ll either give up on celibacy at some point or give up on our dream of a future together. Perhaps these speculations are fueled by the human tendency to skepticism over anything that deviates from social and cultural norms, but we have to wonder if part of the issue is that we haven’t devoted much time yet to sharing what we envision for the future of our community of two. Over the past few weeks as we’ve been looking back over posts from eight or nine months ago, we’ve realized that most of our posts specifically related to celibacy focus on how we got to where we are now rather than where we see God leading us. In today’s post, we want to share with our readers five possibilities we imagine for our future as a celibate couple. Some of these are directions where we are confident that God is leading us. Others are fuzzy, distant possibilities that will require years more of prayer, guidance from our spiritual fathers, and candid conversations with those we love and trust most.

When thinking about life together over the long haul, we keep returning to our shared spiritual life and how much effort it takes from both of us to ensure that we are living into this aspect of celibacy. We came to our current Christian tradition from very different religious backgrounds. It has been an adventure to watch and learn from how God shows us that our distinct perspectives on spiritual matters complement each other. Nevertheless, we constantly hope that God continues to develop in us a truly shared spirituality. In some ways, it seems like we’ve experienced some first fruits in surprising places. We welcome every way God might draw us closer to Christ through continuing to merge our various spiritual practices, and we believe firmly that God is calling us into a deeper, more unified spiritual life together as our relationship with each other continues to grow.

We also have great hopes that God will continue to show us more about our vocations as teachers. Though we work in vastly different fields (Sarah in theology and Lindsey in engineering education), we’ve already seen bits of evidence that God is calling us to strengthen each other in our commitments to helping students get the most meaningful and intellectually challenging educational experiences possible. Sarah’s experience of teaching as been that it comes naturally and is a great joy, even amidst occasional frustrations. Until getting to know Sarah, Lindsey’s experience of teaching was anxiety provoking and sometimes came with significant dread. As we’ve begun sharing a household, we’ve found that both of us have uncovered important details about our vocations as teachers. Sarah has inspired Lindsey to take greater interest in the needs of students, and to seek teaching opportunities that are the right fit emotionally even if not affiliated with more prestigious educational institutions. For the first time, Lindsey has begun to see teaching as a clear part of Lindsey’s vocation. Lindsey has challenged Sarah to empathize more with students who have little interest in theology but are taking a course in this field for a university requirement — particularly students majoring in STEM fields. As a result, Sarah is developing a better sense of how to reach students who enter introductory theology classes with apathy. Every term we’re both teaching, we notice more examples like these. If God intends to use both of us as educators, we pray that he will continue to open up new insights to us within the context of our relationship.

All our regular readers know by this point that one of our primary goals in blogging is to offer support to other lay people like us who are discerning the possibility of making a commitment to celibacy — particularly those who are LGBTQ and/or pursuing celibate partnerships. So many people have contacted us with questions about their own life situations. Each time we receive this sort of email, we devote some time to praying for that person and asking God to help us respond in the most helpful manner. As this happens, we find ourselves hoping for additional opportunities to help other lay people who are considering living some non-monastic form of celibacy. Neither of us knows much about legal matters, but we’re fortunate to have a friend at our church who is knowledgeable in this area and is willing to guide us to the best resources for ensuring that we have non-marital legal protections. Once we learn more about the process of managing our legal relationships to each other, we sense that God might be calling us to provide help and support for other couples like us as they sort these and other matters for themselves.

Though we try to write in an accessible, reflective style on the blog, we also have an interest in making a more academic contribution to conversations about lay celibacy. Our own Christian tradition has a long history of celibate vocations, but nearly every resource we’ve encountered from within our own tradition discusses celibacy solely within the context of monasticism. Sarah is especially interested in taking on future academic writing projects that explore the question, “What would a theology of non-monastic, lay celibacy look like in our Christian tradition?” Both of us have seriously considered creating an online repository of documents and other media related to celibacy that represents a plethora of Christian denominations. We’ve been contacted by untold numbers of people whose denominations say nothing whatsoever about celibacy (or so it appears), or have only negative things to say about the practice of celibacy. If God opens the door for us to provide these kinds of resources to the people who need and desire them most, we would consider it a great honor to fill that role.

Since we first began making plans for sharing a household and living together as a family, we’ve also been discussing how to broaden the scope of our practice of hospitality. Though we both consider our relationship with each other the most meaningful relationship in our lives next to God and the saints, we would welcome the expansion of our two-person community. As we’ve prayed about how God might be calling us to extend our family, we’ve both felt inspiration to (eventually) move into a larger home and offer the unused bedrooms to people who are recovering from addictions and experiencing difficulty reintegrating into work/school after taking time off to focus on getting healthy. We want to offer a safe space where those in recovery can get their needs met for basic resources and emotional support and stay for as long as necessary. Because of Sarah’s experience with different addictions, this issue is near and dear to our hearts. Very few people outside the recovery community realize how few opportunities for this kind of support exist in the “real world” outside of treatment centers and group meetings. There is a great need for resources to bridge that gap. For the past several months, the two of us have felt a clear sense of call to work toward this goal in future years when we are more financially established.

Of all five items discussed in our post today, the next is certainly the fuzziest, most undeveloped possibility for our future as a celibate couple. Sarah has mentioned before that one of the most difficult aspects of celibacy for Sarah is the fact that celibates do not get to become mothers and fathers, at least in the biological sense. Sarah has devoted and continues to devote considerable time to reflecting on how best to direct the desire for motherhood. While Lindsey has never felt any inclination toward parenthood, the two of us occasionally discuss the possibility of taking in foster children and what that would mean for the celibate vocation we live together. In an ideal world, there would be no need for foster care. In an almost-but-not-quite-ideal world, there would be enough interested couples living marital vocations that no need would exist for celibates like us to be foster parents. But we don’t live in an ideal world or even close, and there are so many children who will never know what it is like to be loved by a parental figure. There are kids who will spend their entire lives in group homes and abusive foster care situations because there are so few good potential foster parents. Then, there are some kids who can’t be placed because available foster families aren’t able/willing to manage disabilities, behavioral problems, mental health diagnoses, etc. We don’t plan on pursuing this anytime in the near future as it is a decision that would require long and serious discernment, but if God should call us to provide an unloved, uncared for child with a Christian home, basic needs, a solid education, and two very loving and firm adults, we pray that we’ll be prepared to answer that call.

These examples are mere glimpses into the hopes and dreams we have for our future as a team, a partnership, and a family. The possibilities are both exciting and frightening, and we hope that the right decisions on all of them will become clearer as we grow in greater love for God and each other. We have a mutual feeling that this isn’t the last time we’ll be addressing this topic.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Celibate Gay Christians, Recovering Addicts, and Communities of Abstinence

A reflection by Sarah

It seems that once every few weeks, there’s a news story about some pastor, activist, celebrity, or politician who has made a comparison between recovering addicts and gay people who abstain from sexual activity. The most recent of these has resulted from a post on the Family Research Council’s blog, in which Peter Sprigg uses Robin Williams’ death and history of addictions treatment as a jumping off point for an argument in favor of sexual orientation change efforts. As I read that post, I was absolutely mortified. It has made me even more certain that the topic of “homosexuality and addiction” warrants further discussion. As of now, the conversation is relatively shallow: mostly folks on one side of the aisle or the other yelling back and forth about whether they’re looking at apples and oranges, or apples and apples.

I wrote once before on why making certain comparisons between homosexuality and addiction is problematic. It doesn’t matter if the person making the analogy is suggesting that gay people can become straight or sexually active gay people could become celibate if treatment programs were offered. The comparison between homosexuality and addiction is rife with misconceptions about both gay people and addicts, and I believe that dispelling these is exceptionally important. But when we who write on this topic focus exclusively on pointing out all the ways that homosexuality is or is not like addiction, we miss opportunities to consider this topic from alternative angles. Today, I’d like to begin exploring one of these other dimensions.

After publishing my own post about why homosexuality and addiction analogies fall short, I began to reflect on some of the the unexpected similarities between communities that celibate LGBT people form and fellowships that recovering addicts form. As I have shared before, I am both a celibate gay Christian and a recovering addict. Over time, I’ve come across phenomenal groups of people in each of these worlds, and I’ve found that the best communities of celibate gay Christians share certain attributes in common with the best recovery communities. But unfortunately, both tend to be characterized incorrectly in similar ways by outsiders. Those looking in from the outside often assume that these communities are focused exclusively on abstinence and have little else to offer their members.

I’ve had dozens of conversations with people who have not experienced either type of community, but nonetheless envision both celibates and recovering addicts as constantly white-knuckling their abstinence. All too frequently, outsiders frame addiction recovery as, “Just stop doing/using (the addictive behavior or substance).” And I must admit, I held this assumption when I first began addressing my own addictions. When I began seeking treatment for bulimia, I believed naively that if I could learn how to force myself to eat normally, all would be perfect in my universe. It didn’t take long before I realized that nothing about recovery is this simple. When an addict tries to explain that it’s difficult to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior, it’s easy for those who don’t understand this experience to imagine that the addict will spend the rest of his or her life hanging onto a metaphorical ledge by a fingernail.  Every minute a person spends abstaining is then perceived as torturous. With some regularity, I have to clarify that this is not my experience of recovery, and after doing so I’m often met with confusion: “If you and most of your friends at your meetings aren’t struggling regularly to stay in recovery, why go? What’s the point?” Similarly, many outsiders to celibate LGBT communities posit that celibacy is nearly impossible, and that those who do succeed must live in constant agony, ready to bend and break at any moment. Once I began discussing my celibacy openly, I noticed that the majority of people in my life had the same reactions as when I’d become more comfortable sharing my seriousness about recovery: “That’s a long, hard road, Sarah. You’ll be fighting temptation for the rest of your life. What a struggle it must be for you to avoid slipping.” And I’ve lost count of how many friends have suggested that I’m denying myself one of life’s greatest pleasures, and I must have no reason to interact with other gay celibates beyond helping them not to have sex and asking them to support me in not having sex.

A related misunderstanding about both addiction recovery and celibate LGBT communities is that when we aren’t white-knuckling together, we must be commiserating instead. Truth be told, trying to live intentionally — whether as a husband or wife, a celibate, a person in recovery, or a person in any number of other life situations — is full of difficulties. Sometimes, making decisions aligned with a particular way of life is incredibly hard. However, neither my recovery journey nor my commitment to celibacy can be characterized only by the tough parts. It’s not unusual for people in my life to ask me about my support group meetings, “Do you all just sit around and talk about how much it sucks not to be able to do x, y, or z anymore?” And as I share about my experience of fellowship with other celibate gay Christians, the same folks usually ask the exact same question. Non-celibate people, both LGBT and straight, often want to know what celibate LGBT spaces, both in person and online, are like. But it can be challenging to hold that discussion with interested outsiders who first conceive of these spaces as dreary, mournful corners of the internet where everyone bemoans his or her sexual orientation and the challenges of living celibacy. It takes a great deal of time to show others that a commitment to celibacy doesn’t necessarily indicate that life is absolutely horrible and meaningless on just about every metric of human flourishing.

A third common misconception about these two types of communities is that we look down upon others who are not part of our circles. To an extent, outsiders who perceive our communities in this way probably have good reasons. When a person adopts a new way of life, he or she can be especially zealous. For example, it’s not unheard of for an alcoholic who has just begun attending recovery meetings to begin assessing all of his or her friends’ levels of alcohol use. Similarly, I’ve known folks who have spent their first few months of committed celibacy critically examining their other LGBT friends’ non-celibacy. Very few people are comfortably “out” regarding their statuses as recovering addicts or celibate LGBT Christians. But because so many people in my life have had negative experiences with folks in either group (or both), I am told with some regularity that forcing others into a certain way of life is the only reason someone might share openly about his or her journey in a community of abstinence. I’ve lost count of the number of times an acquaintance has told me, “The problem with celibate gays is they all demand that every other gay person has to become celibate.” Yet despite these sentiments from people outside the celibate gay community, rarely have I met a celibate gay Christian who would actively approach a non-celibate gay person with a wagging finger, spouting choice bits of Christianese, and inquiring about the specifics of that person’s sexual behaviors. Likewise, I’ve found that members of addiction recovery communities who would engage in this sort of behavior toward outsiders are very much in the minority.

Healthy communities of any kind focus on a positive vision for life. If someone where to ask me how I’ve benefited from participation in addiction recovery communities and celibate gay communities, I couldn’t conceive of responding with a simple, “They helped me to stop doing a, b, and c.” My active participation in addiction recovery communities has brought numerous gifts. I have received support for living a way of life that is purposeful and fulfilling. I’ve come to see that being accountable is not merely providing an answer to, “Have you avoided particular behaviors?” but is instead thinking deeply, “Am I living a way of life that promotes wellness on multiple axes?” I know that no matter what, I will find acceptance, love, and compassion in these communities. No one is going to shame, berate, browbeat, or belittle me if I experience a relapse. Instead, they’re all going to be there for me as they love me, embrace me warmly, care for me, and remain with me through my challenges. They won’t see me as a hypocrite; they’ll see me as a human. They can witness my struggles and defects of character while at the same time seeing me as a human being worthy of love. I’ve been blessed to observe these same dynamics at play in celibate gay communities. Members of celibate gay communities know that it’s essential to help each other discern a way of life that extends far beyond what we aren’t doing: most of us are much more interested in learning how to draw near to God than in policing whether anyone else is having sex. Having a foot in both of these worlds has taught me that any community of abstinence is healthiest when it is uplifting and welcoming rather than fear-based and forceful.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

The Problematic Comparison of Homosexuality and Addiction

A reflection by Sarah

It would be impossible for me to count the number of times I’ve heard some form of comparison between homosexuality and addiction. Usually, these analogies come from well-meaning people who are trying to make sense of experiences foreign to their own. My first two questions to these folks are usually, “Do you identify as gay or have a close relationship with someone who does?” and “Do you personally experience addiction or have a close relationship with someone who does?” In most cases, the answer is either “no” to both or “yes” to one but not the other.

A number of Christian bloggers have discussed the problematic nature of comparing homosexuality with addiction, most from within the context of a liberal sexual ethic. Katie Grimes at Women and Theology raises some valid points as she argues that the comparison of homosexuality and alcoholism “fails as a comparison and it fails as an argument against homosexuality.” Another example comes from Registered Runaway, who has written on how comparing homosexuality with a variety of human problems fosters the use of shallow talking points as the Church grapples with how best to approach the LGBT community: “[Analogies] minimize us. Patronize us. They make us strain to see Christ through all of the mud being thrown.” In both posts, there’s much I can relate to as a gay person. I agree with both authors’ declarations that the homosexuality/addiction analogy is flawed, but when reading articles on this topic in general, more often than not I find myself feeling uncomfortable with discussions of where the analogy fails. I see this discomfort as rooted in the fact that I am both a gay person and a recovering addict.

Perhaps unintentionally, some–though not all–discussions about problems with the homosexuality/addiction comparison imply the sentiment, “Don’t vilify gay people. We/they aren’t like those addicts.” Frequently I hear, “Addiction ruins lives and homosexuality doesn’t,” or “Addiction occurs when a person repeatedly uses a substance or engages in a behavior, eventually becoming unable to stop, but gay people don’t choose to become gay.” I don’t contest what these statements have to say about me as a gay person. I have never seen my sexual orientation as an illness or malady, I didn’t choose to be attracted to women, and being gay certainly has not ruined my life. Yet there’s still something in the aforementioned assertions that I perceive as making light of an important aspect of my experience. In discussion of the homosexuality/addiction analogy, there must be a way forward that honors the lived experiences of gay people, addicts, and those of us lucky enough to be part of both demographics.

In this post, I’d like to make an attempt at that forward movement by approaching this topic from a different angle than I’ve seen in other places. I’d like to discuss why the homosexuality/addiction analogy does as much a disservice to addicts as it does to members of the gay community. I should state upfront that I have no professional expertise in the area of addictions or psychology. My entire education on this topic has come from the school of hard knocks. Therefore, the rest of this post will focus on my own personal experience. My intention is not to make generalizations about all gay people or all addicts. In my 29 years of life, I have faced multiple kinds of addiction. I don’t think it’s important at this time to name all of them, but suffice it to say my experience includes both substance and behavioral addictions. Because I’ve referenced it before and because it is the addiction with which I have the most recovery experience, I’ll use my struggle with bulimia as my primary example. If you’re having trouble understanding why one might conceive of bulimia as an addiction, read this. Now, I’m going to highlight three statements I’ve heard people say when they are comparing homosexuality to addiction. Their words are quoted and in bold print.

“Gay sexual desire is just like an addict’s craving for his/her drug of choice.”

In addition to the fact that I don’t know a single non-sex-addicted person, gay, straight, or otherwise, who would describe his/her sexual desires as “cravings,” I see this statement as problematic because shows a profound misapplication of the term “craving.” In addiction studies terms, a craving is a psychological urge to use a particular drug or engage in a particular behavior. Cravings are also part of withdrawal from use of said substance or behavior. When I’ve said in the past, “I’m experiencing a craving” in relation to bulimia, that has meant, “I’m experiencing the urge to acquire a large amount of food, eat it, and purge by means of vomiting.” Several years ago when I was at my lowest point, I was facing these cravings multiple times a day and my entire schedule revolved around getting food and finding places and times to devour it and purge. As I became increasingly ill, I fell into the irrational belief that I wouldn’t be able to survive a day without bulimic behaviors. When my rituals were interrupted, the cravings remained present until I found some way to engage—even if that meant the only place for carrying out the process was an alley behind the nearest grocery store, and the only consumable product I could afford that would be voluminous enough to purge was a gallon of water. Cravings are intense and baffling. Overcoming them takes an incredible amount of work and support, and it’s hard. Dealing with cravings is not as simple as applying a bit of willpower and saying, “I’m deciding not to do this behavior/use this substance, even though I desire it.”

None of what I have been describing thus far is anything remotely like my experience of attraction to other women. When I experience sexual desire, I don’t find myself thinking, “If I don’t have sex, I’m going to die.” I couldn’t possibly imagine scheduling my entire life, or even a portion of my life, around seeking out opportunities for engaging in sexual activity. Even the sex addicts I know would never conflate the level of sexual desire experienced by most people with the cravings of sexual addiction.

I find it offensive that increasingly often, non-addicted people use the word “addiction” to describe something that they enjoy immensely and couldn’t imagine living without. I’ve seen a “List of Things I’m Addicted To” trend emerge at different times on Facebook, in which people will list items such as “my best friends” or “my children.” This is a perfect example of how acceptable it has become to misapply the term “addiction.” A person who truly is addicted to his/her best friends or children has an unhealthy attachment to those people, and I seriously doubt that most would be comfortable broadcasting such a reality proudly on Facebook. As I see it, the term “craving” gets misapplied in a similar way when a person compares homosexuality to addiction. Implying that my sexual inclinations are the same as my urges for bulimic behavior belittles the constant work I’ve had to do over the years to progress in recovery.

“There might be a genetic element to homosexuality, but there’s also a genetic element to addiction, and that doesn’t mean we excuse addiction.”

There are many possibilities for interpreting this statement as problematic (I’ll be glad to discuss more with you in the comments), but here I’ll focus on my observation that it assumes both homosexuality and addiction are behaviors and nothing more. A person who makes this statement assumes that being gay is solely about having sex. I’ve been told before that because I’m celibate, there’s no reason for me to use the label “gay.” I strongly disagree and I would like to write on that topic in the future, but for now I’ll link you to the work of my friend Joshua Gonnerman, who is also a celibate gay Christian.

A person who makes this statement also assumes that addiction is solely about feeding insatiable cravings for one’s substance or behavior of choice and has nothing to do with underlying psychological and/or spiritual problems. My experience with bulimia (and other addictions too) has taught me that reducing it to its behavioral aspect not only ignores the bigger picture of what might be leading to the behavior, but also impedes real progress in recovery. I didn’t start engaging in bulimic behavior because one day I decided it would be nice to become addicted to gorging myself and vomiting. Numerous factors including nutrition, trauma, anxiety, and the way I felt about myself all played a role. In order to attain any level of recovery beyond the superficial “just stop eating and throwing up!” I had to deal with all of those complicating factors and many more. At different points, I spent months in inpatient and residential eating disorder treatment facilities. Though most of these experiences proved beneficial in helping me to stop bulimic behaviors, the majority did very little in terms of helping me construct a way of life outside the facility that would no longer include binging and purging. Those treatment experiences that were most helpful assisted me in focusing not only on behaviors, but also on the underlying reasons for engaging in those behaviors in the first place.

The work of recovering from any addiction involves an honest and thorough look at the darkest parts of oneself. Any person who has worked a 12-step recovery program knows that there is a noteworthy distinction between “dry” and “sober.” Stopping behaviors and abstaining from substances is all a person needs to do in order to maintain dryness, but doing the painful, arduous work that holistic recovery necessitates is what leads an addict to the gift of sobriety. Most people who prefer different, non-12-step types of recovery programs and approaches also would likely agree with the basic idea that recovery is about about so much more than stopping behaviors. Reducing the struggle of a person who experiences addiction to “drinking too much,” “using illegal drugs,” “eating and throwing up,” etc. effectively denies all aspects of recovery that aren’t purely behavioral, thereby implying that recovery merely involves abstinence.

“A gay person involved in a same-sex friendship or ‘celibate’ partnership is no different from an alcoholic tending bar/a prescription drug addict working in a pharmacy/a bulimic working in a restaurant, and it can only lead to temptation.”

Being in a celibate partnership, I think it’s probably obvious that I disagree with the assumptions this statement makes about gay people. At best, it incorrectly suggests that if we experience sexual attraction, we are constantly “at risk” for acting upon that attraction. At worst, it presumes that we are sexually attracted to every person of the same sex. The lack of logic becomes clear when one applies this statement to straight people’s interactions with the opposite sex. I doubt anyone would argue that a straight man must necessarily be attracted to all women, that a straight woman must necessarily be attracted to all men, or that any person in a heterosexual relationship must be playing with fire just by being in that relationship.

This statement also misrepresents addicts by implying that exposure to situations involving substances with which we struggle will necessarily trigger us to use or engage in the addictive behavior. Furthermore, it could be taken to imply that being around said substance or having the opportunity to engage in said behavior is the only possible trigger for a recovering addict. There have been times when specific foods have made me feel uncomfortable or caused negative associations that needed processing. However, when I’ve felt cravings for bulimic behavior, the impetus for those urges hasn’t been cheesecake, pizza, and tacos. Almost always, the trigger has been stressful interactions with family, seemingly unmanageable emotions, or memories of a traumatic event–and often, it’s a combination of all three. Simply being around food, even the food items I consider most challenging, does not trigger me. Being around other substances I have used in the past does not trigger me either. I know plenty of alcoholics who work as bartenders and prescription drug addicts who work as pharmacists, doctors, and nurses, and most of them do not find their work environments triggering. Of course, there are recovering addicts who do find it triggering to be in the same vicinity as the substances they have used and I do not intend to deny their experiences, but it is incorrect to suggest that this is true for all people suffering from or recovering from addiction.

I hope my personal reflections have been helpful in clarifying some ways the homosexuality/addiction comparison is problematic, both in terms of its incorrect characterization of gay people and in its false representation of addicts and addiction. While these three iterations of the analogy are the ones I hear most often, they are not the only forms of comparison people regularly make between homosexuality and addiction. If there are others you would find beneficial to discuss, feel free to leave them in the comments section.

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Encountering the Mirror of Erised

A reflection by Sarah

This is the second of two reflections Lindsey and I are sharing in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. You can read Lindsey’s reflection here.

“Now, can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?” Harry shook his head. “Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”

Harry thought. Then he said slowly, “It shows us what we want… whatever we want…”

“Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”

—J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Of all the magical objects in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I’ve always found the Mirror of Erised most fascinating. Invisibility cloaks are interesting, yet don’t serve much purpose unless you want to hide from the world or go snooping around in places you’re not supposed to be. The Marauder’s Map is pretty awesome too; however, it will not do you much good if you aren’t actually at Hogwarts. But a mirror that shows you the deepest desire of your heart…in times of uncertainty, there’s a lot to be said for the utility of such an object, especially if you’re a teenager and have absolutely no idea what you want in life. Upon reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at age fifteen, I remember wondering, “If I could look into this mirror, what might I see?” I hadn’t given this any thought at the time, but I had caught my first glimpse of the Mirror of Erised three years prior and was already beginning to do exactly what Dumbledore had warned Harry against—wasting away before the Mirror, not knowing whether its reflection was real or even possible.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that managing recovery from an eating disorder can be a lot like gazing into the Mirror of Erised and learning how not to be mesmerized and enticed by the vision it offers. This lesson is a lot more difficult than most people realize. To clarify, I’m not talking about the way I see my body. I’m one of the (possibly) rare people in the eating disorder recovery community who does not experience body image disturbances beyond the occasional bad hair day or frustration with dry skin during winter. Instead, what I mean is that the eating disorder’s voice, if you will, can manifest in eerily convincing ways, holding my greatest needs and deepest desires before my eyes and subtly suggesting that it has the key for opening the door to all of them.

The first time I ever purged, I was twelve. I had just begun to experience a repetitive traumatic event that would continue for a few more years. I grew up in a household that was probably stricter than most, and I wasn’t very confident that disclosure of the trauma would be taken well. I longed for the courage to discuss what was going on and the ability to sense when it would be safe to come forward, but neither ever came to me…until bulimia entered the picture. After eating something that didn’t agree with me and becoming ill during the holidays that year, I discovered that vomiting could function as an emotional release. When I felt well again a couple of days later, I found myself drawn to replicating the sense of relief that had come as a side effect…so I did replicate it. And I saw that with each instance, I felt safer, more courageous, even more powerful. It wasn’t long before I had acquired my own internal Mirror of Erised, readily displaying visions of freedom found exclusively in a box of Oreos and a stimulated gag reflex.

About two years later, I worked up the strength to tell someone about the traumatic occurrences that were still persisting. These revelations were met with disbelief, punishment, and broken trust. Though I cannot remember a single moment in my life when I did not believe in God, in my estimation he seemed absent and disinterested in the pain of a fourteen-year-old kid, so I turned my gaze almost completely to the Mirror of Erised. I had been praying that one day the truth would out, but this didn’t seem likely. I could look into the Mirror and view images of myself as an adult…strong, independent, successful, able to care for myself, never needing to trust, and consequently, never being let down by anyone ever again. Though the truth did eventually burst forth and become undeniable, by this time apologies were too little, too late. I was convinced that the Mirror held all the answers. If only I would keep staring at it intently, it could show me the path to fulfilling my wildest dreams.

I continued along this way through high school, college, and into graduate school. Over time I began experiencing symptoms of what I now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder. Engaging in bulimic behavior became my regular means for ridding myself of anxiety and flashbacks. If I had trouble focusing on a reading assignment that I didn’t enjoy, got stuck with the majority of the work on a group project, or had no idea how I could possibly maintain my grade point average while ensuring that I had enough income to finish a semester in the first place, I didn’t have time to worry about all my “nonsense” from the past…so I numbed it instead. Fixating so strongly on how I envisioned my desires for the future left me unable to see the harm I was causing in the present. “This will only be temporary,” I would tell myself. “I’ll have plenty of time to deal with this mess once I’m finished with school.” But things didn’t work out exactly as planned. Grave medical consequences eventually led me to seek treatment, rather unwillingly at first. That was seven years ago…possibly a story for another time.

I don’t like to measure the amount of recovery I’ve attained solely by my number of behavior-free days, but until this past October, by the grace of God I had been without bulimic behaviors for just over five years. A brief blip on the radar that month served as a needed reminder that the Mirror can change according to my circumstances, and it behooves me to be prepared. My internal Mirror of Erised has been part of my life for seventeen years now, and I imagine it will always be with me at some level. Everyone has to eat. It’s unavoidable. And if I can’t abstain from food, it’s all too easy to misuse it in attempt to alter realities that make me uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why getting a handle on recovery from other addictions has always been much easier for me.

Confronting the Mirror has never been straightforward or simple, and even after years of practice I’m not always sure of how to acknowledge its reflection healthily and realistically. Now when I peer into its glass I try asking myself, “Is this an ordered desire or a disordered desire? Are there healthier ways to manage it?” Sometimes, I can glance at the Mirror’s reflection, accept it as it is, and continue with life as usual. Other times, the gears begin turning inside my head and before I know it, I’m in the midst of a brawl with a voice that whispers, “I can make you feel powerful. I can provide you with safety, calmness, assurance, confidence, anything you want.” Maybe this incessant struggle with the Mirror of Erised is to be expected. But perhaps one day, God will grant me the grace to view its reflection and see only Him.

Mirror of ErisedComment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.