Beginning in the Victorian era and continuing into the 1960s, there were many floating pseudo-Sciences and quackeries that were masquerading themselves as legitimate medical practices. Women were often sent to asylums to treat their monthly hysterias, while supposed medical practitioners often advocated extreme and shocking measures such as lobotomies to eradicate temperaments. An infamous case in point was Rosemary Kennedy who suffered violent seizures and mood swings. Having been persuaded that his daughter needed a lobotomy to correct the issue, the procedure was sanctioned by Rosemary’s father, Joseph Kennedy, to be carried out in 1941. A lobotomy involves the making of an incision in the skull and sticking a metal rod through that incision to mush up the frontal lobe of the brain. The lobotomy did not end well and presented with drastic and immediate detrimental results. Rosemary Kennedy lost her ability to walk and talk. She was left physically disabled with her personality completely altered and was quickly institutionalised (National Park Service, n.d.).

For a very long time, and even during much part of the 20th century, addictions were viewed by scientists and religions under the lenses of misconceptions and misinformation. Addicts were believed to be morally flawed and lacking willpower, which in turn shaped the responses of care and recovery. These treated addictions as intrinsic kinks and moral failings on an individual’s part. With this prevailing confusion, there was thus an emphasis on punishment as the answer to these perceived moral shortcomings, rather than prevention, restorative therapy, and treatment (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2021). St. Mark Ji Tianxiang for example, before his martyrdom, was an opium addict, who was kicked out of the confessional, because his confessor did not understand the nature of addiction, and thought that he was not putting in any effort to eradicate the sin.

With a more enlightened medical and Science body of knowledge today, we are only just recognising and realising that addiction is in fact a medical disorder, that develops over time, affects the brain, and changes behaviour. It has been widely researched that some people are more disposed to addiction than others based on multi-factorial variables such as environmental and biological risk factors (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2021).

How people become addicted is complex and has possibly to do with our brains handling or seeking pleasure produced by neurochemicals such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. These naturally occurring chemicals are produced when a healthy brain categorises, identifies, and reinforces beneficial behaviours such as exercise, eating, socialising, listening to and playing music, creative pursuits, and sex. Our brains are wired to remember the activity that causes these pleasures and are programmed internally to desire to repeat these behaviours and cycles. This activates the Basal Ganglia part of the brain, otherwise known as the Reward Circuit, with a burst of dopamine, which in turn modifies the neurology of our brains to make the repetition of such behaviours and activities easier without thinking much about them.

Addiction happens when there is a dysregulation of the brain circuitry. Drugs, Pornography, Smoking, Sexual Disorders and Fetish, Gambling, Alcoholism, Reckless Speeding, and Uncontrollable Spending amid others cause large surges of dopamine and a rush of adrenaline beyond the normal functionality levels. These magnified surges of dopamine recondition the brain to seek out these experiences above other healthy behaviours, goals, and activities. In people who struggle with addiction, these addictive activities reduce the sensitivity of the brain’s neurotransmitters to receive pleasure from naturally rewarding activities such as from engaging in sports. This is a vicious cycle.

With the reduced capacity to obtain pleasure from everyday activity, the person would be driven to continually seek out this high by participating in the addictive behaviour with greater frequency, which in turn diminishes the neuroreceptors’ function more and more. Likewise, everyday activities like watching television, surfing social media, and even the consumption of food especially of sugar, can also become addictive if not moderated and consumed in temperance. People can also be addicted to intangible things such as wanting and desiring to be the centre of attention. Tolerance to the addictive substance increases over time, and the person will need to consume more and more of the addictive substance or activity, so as to get a measurable amount of “high”.

What is scary is that the learnt behaviours associated with the addictive behaviours, otherwise known as cues, can also trigger the addictive cravings whenever the person is exposed to these cues. For example, drug addicts who have remained sober for decades can suddenly experience intense cravings when driving by driveways where they had purchased drugs previously (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2022; Johns Hopkins Medicine, n.d).

In people who suffer from an addiction to lust and pornography, they usually undergo a cycle of addiction that encompasses:

  1. Preoccupation
  2. Ritual
  3. Acting Out
  4. Depression

In the Preoccupation stage, a person who is emotionally immature or who has certain needs unmet, for example, a man who has had his masculinity bruised or shamed, would try to find a way to regain control and handle these manifested difficult feelings through avoidance via fantasy and escape. This is usually a beginning stage to addiction as a person avoids confronting the feelings of shame, or doesn’t know how to deal with his or her pain, and then seeks out a way, usually unhealthy to hide from this negative self-valuation.

The next stage is the phase of Ritualisation. This comprises a series of certain actions and behaviours that a person does or creates to prolong and to intensify the preoccupation or the fantasy, with the intention of bringing about a state of arousal, a rush of excitement, and a false sense of control. For example, a pornography watching session may begin early in the day with the person selecting a piece of lingerie to wear. This is followed by an escalating sequence of rituals that seek to accumulate that feeling of pleasure, for example drawing the curtains, locking the bedroom door etc.. Addicts usually seek to prolong this setting up and arousal stage, as this provides them with the pleasurable high that they seek. These rituals often serve to distract the person further from engaging with his or her feelings of worthlessness, or low self-esteem.

The Acting-out stage, occurs very quickly, and the person tends to try to hold off this part as long as they can. This is when the actual sexual act occurs – masturbation and release, a call to a phone sex provider, the coitus of an adulterous affair.

The last stage, is the Depression phase, where the person having experienced release in the Acting-out stage, begins to be overcome by guilt – “I am a bad person,” “I have done a bad thing.” This stage is highly destructive, as there is a sense that the person has broken promises that were made to himself or herself, and has failed oneself and others. This further erodes the person’s self-worth and esteem, and sets off the negative and destructive spiral that builds up to the next time when the Preoccupation stage begins again (Katehakis, 2011; Barns, 2020; Laaser, 2004; Carnes, 2018).

On the Catholic front, we have a powerful grace in the form of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However what happens when we find ourselves heading to Confession and confessing the same habitual sin week after week after week?

First, we must recognise that having regular access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is better than having none at all.

Second, we must ask ourselves if there is a deeper psychological wound, trigger, or trauma that needs the help of a trained professional, say a therapist, a counsellor, a social worker, a medical doctor, or a psychologist to unpack and address.

Compulsive behaviours and addictions have various mitigating factors – some biological, some environmental. These drag their strugglers in a spiral of destructive behaviours and in a terrible cycle of negativity and depression. An important part of the recovery process is learning how to break the cycle even before it begins. This has to do with embracing vulnerability and being honest with oneself. Inevitably, this could lead many to feel uncomfortable with the process.

A first step is to recognise the increasing arousal stages of Ritualisation and to break the cycle as soon as we can:

  1. A person is placed a vulnerable position. This vulnerability window resulting from things such as boredom, tiredness, irritation, hunger, loneliness, loss of face and respectability, an anniversary of an emotional and traumatic event… makes a person more susceptible to acting out in an addictive manner.
  2. Triggers are things, happenings, events, or situations that could lead to a desire to cope through an addictive and unhealthy behaviour. For example being in the vicinity where a brothel is frequented and available, a difficult conversation with an overbearing parent, a toxic colleague, a humiliating event at the work place, an instance of shame, or when power has been stolen from somebody…
  3. The trigger usually leads to an overwhelming emotional response that leaves the person feeling helpless or empty. This builds up to the point of psychological arousal when the person begins to pursue the fantasy of escape.
  4. A person starts dwelling on and entertaining the thought of release or the high associated with particular addictions – Oh I can taste the whiskey on my lips now; I can feel the buzz when I take a drag of the cigarette.
  5. Flood of Dopamine. This occurs as the person engages in the activities that lead to an overflow of dopamine. At this stage, it becomes difficult to break the cycle as the wheels are already in rapid motion, and the flood of dopamine has at this juncture caused the person to become fixated in accomplishing the addictive act.
  6. Finally, after the release, there are two paths – the first of reproach of self, the second of dismissal – oh well, there is always tomorrow.
  7. Last, remorse and guilt sets in (Integrity Restored, n.d.)

The saving grace is that Addiction is treatable. For a Catholic, the person may approach the next tangible steps of accountability and action:

Addiction is a type of slavery. I am not free and in fact enslaved to the sin/addiction.

  1. Confession is a good first step, but I must also take the effort in forsaking the sin or the factors that lead to the sin completely. Some addictions and triggers are best avoided altogether. As Proverbs 28:13 says, “Those who conceal their sins do not prosper, but those who confess and forsake them obtain mercy.”
  2. Serving the Church using the multitude of gifts that have been given by the Holy Spirit is a way of combating the idleness and the emptiness that leads to addictions. The fruits, virtues, and gifts of the Holy Spirit are gifted to us to help us combat the venom and lethargy of sin:

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ [Jesus] have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. Let us not be conceited, provoking one another, envious of one another.” (Galatians 5:19-26)

When we are engaged in mission and serving others, for example the poor, and in the charities. The focus also shifts from ourselves and our selfish states that yearn for self-indulgence and gratification, to a purpose that is greater than ourselves. The antidote to drunkenness, is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I must ask for the Grace of God to help set me free, as I am powerless to carry out this battle on my own merit. I can only become sober again by the strength of the Lord.

  1. I need to intentionally restructure and reorder my life. Addiction is a disorder, that must be overcome with care and order. Habits of vice and sin, must be intentionally be replaced and scheduled in with Biblical and godly habits, for example the time spent watching pornography, could be replaced with the Praying of the Divine Office, reading scripture, or adoring the Blessed Sacrament.
  2. I need to be accountable and to journey with someone – a spiritual director, a regular confessor, and an accountability partner from the community who can help me to walk on the right path. Recovery can only happen with community support.
  3. I need to recognise that regardless of my shortcomings and addictions, I am a son or daughter that is beloved by the Lord God, and that God my Father does not stop loving me.
  4. I can sign up for an evidence-based therapy programme such as the 12-steps used by Alcoholic Anonymous to help me surrender my weaknesses to God, to acknowledge that I have a problem, that I need help, to pray as if everything depended on God, and to work as if everything depended on oneself.
  5. I need to work with professionals who can help me get better. If it means engaging with therapy, rehabilitation programmes, or counselling then that needs to happen. Sobriety does not happen by chance.
  6. I can call upon the help and intercession of the Communion of Saints, such as St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, Venerable Matt Talbot, and St. Camilius de Lellis, who themselves struggled with addiction.
  7. I must recognise that on my path of recovery, there will be start-stops, good days, and bad days, and when the desolating days come, I must recognise that I am not a failure and must pick up from when I have fallen. Many re-starts are part of the journey.
  8. I must remember that I am forgiven and that I am deeply loved by God my Father.

At the heart of addiction recovery, treatment, and ministry is the truth that willpower can only achieve so much. To break free, the addict must depend not on his or her own power, but a Higher Power that can only be provided for by God our Father.

Success is dependent on the following four factors:

  1. External accompaniment and supervision – with a sponsor and a community of support (moral inventory taking and accountability through mutual confession)
  2. Ritual re-habituation by replacing an addicting behaviour with a competing good – such as going to weekly community meetings, and engaging in service, outreach, and mission work.
  3. Creating new and healthy love relationships – making friends in recovery, breaking away from toxic ties.
  4. Deepening of Catholic spirituality and the building of a solid relationship with God our Father through frequent reception of the Sacraments and prayer, signifying a complete and utter dependence on Grace.

(c.f. Murphy, n.d.)

Rehabilitation and recovery does not happen overnight, but with these strategies, the Catholic Addict is taking tangible steps towards recovery. The rest we place in the mercy of God our Father to take care of.

By the Grace of God,

Brian Bartholomew Tan


Helpspaces and Helplines:

Clarity Singapore Limited
Block 854 Yishun Ring Road, #01-3511 Singapore 760854

Tel: (65) 6757 7990


Clarity Singapore Limited
7A Lorong 8 Toa Payoh, #04-01 Singapore 319264

Tel: (65) 6801 7467




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Carnes, P. (2018). Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. (Paperback edition) (3rd ed.) Hazelden Trade

Integrity Restored. (n.d.). Why Confession Isn’t Helping Your Porn Problem Part 2. Integrity Resotred. Retrieved August 22, 2022 from

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Opioid Addiction. The Science of Addiction. Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved August 22, 2022 from

Katehakis, A. (2011). The Cycle of Addiction. Psychology Today. Retrieved August 22, 2022 from

Laaser, M. R. (2004). Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction. MI: Zondervan.

Murphy, M. (n.d.). The Value of a Catholic Approach to Recovery. Catholic in Recovery. Retrieved August 22, 2022 from

National Park Service. (n.d.). Rosemary Kennedy, The Eldest Kennedy Daughter. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved August 22, 2022 from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, August 3). Drugs, Brains and Behaviour: The Science of Addiction. Preface. NIDA. Retrieved August 22, 2022 from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2022, March 22). Drugs and the Brain. Retrieved August 22, 2022 from