“I can’t stop thinking about him… am obsessed with him. I can’t function. I need his affirmation, his attention… I feel shame and anxiety… I have no control over my thoughts and actions. I am able to hold off contacting him for a few days. But soon enough something in me pushes me to reach out to him… till it’s a relentless scream within me and I cave in. It drives me mad. I hate myself. I try to stay away but in a few days I’m back there again, in this vicious circle,” she said when I first met her.
As she further described her state, it became apparent that she was in a form of addiction to this man. The craving for the ‘high’ of any contact with him, sent her spiralling again and again into obsessive, depressive, anxious patterns, destabilising her daily life, work and relationships, filling her with darkness. It wasn’t any different from any other addiction or form of enslavement.
It’s been 15 years since. She is a lot better now. She still struggles but the cycles seem to be getting farther and fewer in between. Good friends, medication, and therapy are helping her recovery. But, as an outsider, when I see her, it is apparent to me that what can break the cycle for her has to do with her recognition that her enslavement is beyond this man, habits and immediate need. She believes she has seen it now.
In her case, her enslavement has its roots in insecurities that went far back into the rejection and abandonment she faced in childhood which made her seek ‘love’ in anxiety-provoking ways. Recognising her enslavement in this relationship and its roots in the past was her first tryst with her battle for freedom.
The road to recovery of self-worth and dignity began with her looking more closely at her childhood trauma. The battle for freedom is first fought within.
There is growing awareness that trauma is pervasive and that traumatic experiences, especially when they occur early in life, create a higher risk that someone will develop addiction or enslavement patterns. These enslavements vary. One can be in bondage to another human being as in the example above, to substances like alcohol or drugs, to habits good and bad, to deep-seated unfulfilled needs, to emotions that force one to do whatever it takes to feel a certain way even if it is self-destructive, to name a few.
Many approaches are used to help find freedom from such enslavements—systems of rewards and punishments, positive and negative reinforcement, addiction-related medications, cognitive restructuring, and therapy. In the religious context, there is mentoring with some level of accountability, prayer, and sometimes even ‘exorcism’ may be necessary in some cases. In many families or communities, physical pain, social ostracism, or excommunication as a form of social isolation and control have been used as tool for negative reinforcement and punishment for the deviancy. Often they just add to the trauma of the person being punished or ostracised.
These efforts show varying degrees of ‘success’. Ask the enslaved person and he or she might tell you that she wishes that the ‘’slave parts’’ of the self could be excised or killed. Or at least made inaccessible. I have heard of that “slave part” being described as ‘a black hole,’ ‘deep emptiness,’ a sense of being ‘hollowed out,’ and a ‘hungry angry monster.’ Often the desire is for elimination and destruction of these aspects of a person. But it may be more an unexpressed desire for filling or healing.
Why does one think more in terms of elimination and less in terms of wholeness? I think we have a tendency to want to do away with what doesn’t work for us. What we cannot understand and control is perceived as the enemy. There may be circumstances when this inimical approach is necessary and even critical, but it is not the only go-to. Ironically the very control we seek to destroy is strengthened, for what we suppress only becomes stronger. The more my friend sought to destroy her obsessive cravings and dependency, the more they oppressed her.
The enslaved parts of us are usually vulnerable, fearful, and have often not had their needs met. These parts in us try to survive by latching onto anything or anyone that can meet those unmet needs. They do so by seeking to control the other, sober parts of us to do their bidding and all this is an unconscious process. One may grit teeth and resist these compulsions for a while but in the end one succumbs, yet again. This is the endless spiral the addict is caught in and it leads to self-hatred, self-pity, depletion of dignity and self-worth and ultimately despair.
We hardly ever view our enslaved parts, those parts of us that feel vulnerable and afraid as needing caring. They are rarely ever seen as strong parts because we are so ashamed and repulsed by their ‘weakness’. Perhaps we are even afraid of them and we exile them. We silence them because it feels too threatening to allow them to speak. We hate those parts of us so much, we would rather see them dead. What we don’t realise is when we exile them, it impacts the rest of one’s being because, like it or not, they belong to us, they are us!
Thus, it would seem that we try to meet our internal unmet needs by depending on something or someone external to the point of losing control over that dependent aspect of our being. It seems natural then to vilify that which causes the enslavement.
At the same time, we can also see that the enslavement isn’t the problem, it is a symptom of a deeper issue. It is a cry for help! A cry from our enslaved parts, a cry from within for our vulnerabilities to be acknowledged—to be validated, affirmed, and understood; to be loved and to belong, to be comforted and cared for.
It would be simplistic to think that if the internal wounds are healed, the enslavements would disappear automatically. No, the task of remaining aware of the enslavement, its roots, the resultant inner wounds and working on their internal and external manifestations is still needed. I am increasingly beginning to align with the understanding that the approach needs to be of healing and not elimination; of moving from inside out, from inner healing to behavioural/habit changes, and not from the outside to the inside.
Likewise, exiling our parts by suppressing, eliminating, ostracising, blocking, sidelining or bypassing them because of their ‘weakness’ is not the answer. Integration is the way. Bring those enslaved parts of you that were suppressed back into awareness. Validate their pain. Hear their voices. Offer them support. Accept them alongside those parts of you that you consider strong and are not ashamed of.
For the woman whose story I have shared, her breakthrough began when she realised she had to address her heart first, not just habit. An increasing dependence on Jesus as the only one who could fill her and meet her needs combined with the age-old meditation on and practice of the Jesus prayer (Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!) began to break the fetters of her enslaved parts.
Alongside, there was growing compassion in her towards the enslaved aspects of her being. From my vantage point, her freedom had its genesis there. She is now learning to embrace all that is within her and all other resources of help by rooting herself in Christ and through her shameless dependence on Him. The increasing integration of the parts of her being within is reflected in her prayer borrowed from the psalmist: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His Holy Name.”
The habits of enslavement may take some time to break. I tell her not to worry too much about it. Yes, the longer it takes, there will be consequences, but from the perspective of eternity, I believe that what Jesus cares about is the inner person. If that weren’t true and ideal behaviour was all that mattered, then David would hardly deserve to be called a ‘man after God’s own heart’. When Jesus heals our wounded, exiled parts and integrates them into one beloved whole, one is free to experience His word, “If the Son shall set you free, you will be free indeed.”
This is the road to freedom. If Christ sets us free, we are free indeed. The freedom flows into all parts of the being. We are free to be whole and healed. The battle for freedom is a journey. It begins within. It is not about elimination but integration unto wholesomeness.