What every vocation minister should know about process addictions

What every vocation minister should know about process addictions

By Christiana Ashabo

Addiction is nothing new. It has existed since the beginning of time, as we can see in the story of Noah, who may be one of the first known alcoholics. Four short verses in the Book of Genesis (see page 5) reveal the addiction behavior pattern and the three-fold nature of the denial that helps keep addiction intact: shame, defensiveness and social isolation.

Addiction has been viewed in a limited way for a long time, but in recent years there has been a shift within the treatment community and the general public to see addiction in a broader way. Addiction is the word we now use to describe troubling behaviors that we now label as cybersex or Internet addiction, gambling addiction, etc.

At Southdown Institute, a treatment facility for priests and religious, we are seeing more religious and priests experiencing process addictions (compulsive activity or behavior). These often hidden process addictions can manifest by themselves or in combination with drug or alcohol addiction. Process addictions can focus on a number of different areas, including spending, gambling, debt (these three are inter-related), Internet use, relationships, sex, hoarding, shoplifting, chaos, food, exercise or computer games.

The number of people suffering from process addictions is growing at an alarming rate with the advent of the Internet. A person can switch an addictive relationship from object to object or event to event. Sadly enough, the same technology that has brought us so much progress, joy and excitement has also overwhelmingly taken over some people’s lives, resulting in broken relationships, loss of jobs or ministry, and legal and financial difficulties. Health issues, such as fatigue, headache, back pain, depression and anxiety are linked to Internet or cybersex addictions. Regardless of the nature of the Internet activities the addicts engage in—such as sex, pornography, gaming, shopping or relationships—the hook is so powerful that they become, in a sense, enslaved by the Web. The Internet is now an area in which addicts who would not otherwise act out their addiction feel safer to act out in the privacy of their home. Their addictions are not new; what is new is that an online venue allows and speeds the addictive process. This new technology provides addicts with illusions of control and safety, while leading to out-of-control behavior.

Seek pleasure, avoid pain

Addiction taps into the most fundamental human process. Regardless of the nature of the addiction, the drive for the addictive behavior or how it is acted out, the addictive process can turn creative, life-giving energy into a destructive, demoralizing force.

Underlying most addictive behaviors is the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain, especially the psychic pain that can accompany religious or priestly life, such as loneliness, helplessness, fatigue, anger, shame or depression. External substances, such as alcohol, drugs (Activan, Valium) and sugar alter our subjective experiences. To the extent that a substance does so quickly and consistently, the greater its potential for being used in the development of an addictive disorder, such as alcoholism. Inhaling nicotine or snorting cocaine provides almost instantaneous and powerful stimulation, which contributes to the speed of developing an addiction to those substances as compared to others.

We now know that psychoactive drugs are not the only cause of shifts in our emotional state. Other human activities are capable of mediating this, such as the endogenous “high” long distance runners experience, along with withdrawal symptoms should they stop running. The influence of repetitive behaviors—such as those seen in compulsive spending, gambling, Internet surfing, excessive sexual activity and perhaps even compulsive work—appears to mediate the same neuroadaptive process. That is, they alter in a predictable and consistent way an individual’s subjective experience.

Process addictions (which involve an activity or behavior) often resemble chemical addictions and have similar characteristics. However, the major difference is that an addiction to chemicals entails a person putting a toxin directly into the system and, consequently, into the brain. The chemical, and the by-product of that chemical, damage the brain and alter brain chemistry, perhaps permanently. Process addiction, on the other hand, is purely behavioral and is less damaging to the body and the brain. However, it can also alter brain chemistry. Research in the addiction field continues trying to fully understand the power of process addictions. It is not yet certain in what ways process and chemical addictions are alike and in what ways they are different. Clearly, however, there are many similarities, especially in the reactions of persons experiencing them, such as the initial positive and pleasurable mood changes and the out-of-control and aimless searching for wholeness, happiness and peace through a relationship with an object or event.

Regardless of the addiction, every addict engages in a relationship with an object or event in order to produce a desired mood change, state of intoxication, or trance-like state. The end result for both chemically dependent and process addicts is that they become even more lonely and empty. Looking at the overall pattern of process addiction, it is best understood as the result of a matrix of various factors that represent past and present, environment and person, physiology and psychology and personal processes of change that ultimately determine the course of the addiction. As an individual becomes more and more involved with an addictive behavior, it becomes a priority to seek opportunity to engage in the behavior.


Process addiction defined
Process addictions involve an activity or behavior that initially provides a rush of positive feelings—an intense excitement or high. Over time the behavior becomes compulsive and all-consuming, cloaked in secrecy and denial, and the pursuit of the behavior takes over a person’s life and well-being.

Understanding sex addiction

There are numerous types of process addictions, but in this article I’d like to specifically address two that are relatively well-known and well-understood: sex addiction and gambling. Sex addiction is complex due to the many ways it can be acted out. For example a person can be a sex addict and never have physical contact with anyone but engage in sexual thought patterns and behavior that become obsessivecompulsive and out-of-control. This understanding is important in giving the sex addict a framework for observing his or her internal experiences, behavior patterns and personal constructs with some perspective. A position of increased understanding of the signs of sex addiction can pave the way for important shifts in the illusion the addict has created.

Sexual addiction is obsessive-compulsive sexual behavior which, if left unattended, will cause severe distress and despair for the individual, family and community. The sexual addict is unable to control his or her sexual behavior and lives with constant pain, alienation and fear of discovery. The addiction progresses until sex becomes more important than friends, family, important relationships or work.

Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., said the activities sex addicts choose may vary, whether it be pornography, endless affairs, one night stands, masturbation, exhibitionism and so forth. In and of themselves, these behaviors are not an indication of sex addiction. What makes a behavior an addiction is an overwhelming preoccupation with it, a disregard for consequences and the inability to stop.

A person is considered a sex addict if his or her sexual behaviors take up excessive amounts of time, energy and resources or cause them to act in ways that go against their underlying values and beliefs. Sex addicts are often unable to keep commitments made to themselves or others to stop or change their problematic sexual behaviors, and most have difficulty maintaining healthy, honest intimacy. It is important to know that sex addiction is not simply a problem of being too bored or lonely or not getting enough sex. Sex addicts use cruising, flirting, fantasy, intrigue and the sex act itself in an attempt to manage seemingly intolerable life stressors, underlying emotional conflicts and past trauma. Sex addicts seek sexual highs to substitute for the support and intimacy they readily need but do not allow themselves. Even when surrounded by friends, family, or supportive community, they turn to the isolating intensity of sex rather than reaching out to those close to them. Some sex addicts engage in an endless cycle of empty and unsatisfying intensity-based relationships, while others live in the isolation of compulsive masturbation and porn addiction.

Cybersex addictions on the rise

Sexual addiction crosses all borders; the negative effects and risks of Internet porn, and cybersex use are seen in the dramatic increase in the number of priests and religious with issues related to their online sexual activity. For many of these individuals the Internet has become an outlet for unresolved sexual difficulties and unfocused sexual energy, including the acting out or repetition of traumatic experiences. It is not uncommon for individuals who go online for their social and sexual needs to forsake, avoid or neglect real world relationships. According to sex addiction experts Al Cooper and Eric Griffin-Shelley, most sex addicts seem to find enough solace in their online lives that they lose the motivation to address dissatisfaction in their off-line lives and therefore neither address nor resolve their problems.

Cybersex addiction can enslave persons for years without intervention because of its potential to be kept private and secret. Al Cooper describes the psychological components of Internet addiction as the “triple A engine.” He suggests that three basic components attract individuals to the Internet; accessibility, anonymity and affordability. Cooper indicated that the combination of these three factors explains why the Internet is a powerful medium that attracts millions of users, including the cybersex compulsive.

As an addiction therapist working with clergy and religious at the Southdown Institute, my experience with clergy cybersex addicts proves Cooper’s statement to be accurate. Most of these clergy cybersex addicts reported that although they have had sexual fantasies over the years and would have liked to act on them either by buying porn, attending porn movies, or engaging in anonymous sex in a park, rest room etc., the fear of being recognized and caught kept them from acting on their fantasies or urges. Some religious or clergy reported that the distance involved in obtaining the sexual activities was a factor for not acting out. With the advent of the Internet, they reported that all they wanted or needed became available to them in the safety and privacy of their room, where they felt safe to explore their sexuality. Some rationalized that cybersex helped them to keep their vow of celibacy and to not cross professional boundaries. This illusion kept them hooked on the Web to the point of either getting caught with accessing porn or acting out in real life because of the addiction’s progressive need for a more intense “high.”

These cybersex addicts used the Internet to deal with unintegrated sexuality, to escape from problems or to relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression. Cybersex erodes personal freedom by keeping sexual desires inflamed in order to promote the industry. Meanwhile cybersex addicts often feel their behavior is both harmless and victimless. Following is just one list of the very real consequences of this process addiction: depression and other emotional problems, social isolation, harm to primary relationships, ministry loss or decreased job performance, mismanagement of funds, frequent absenteeism from community events, deteriorating quality of decision making, frequent tardiness, low self-esteem, extreme loneliness, unexplained anxiety, legal problems because of child pornography (including arrest and jail time), extreme feelings of remorse and guilt. Any of the above factors should be a red flag for vocation ministers and should be taken seriously by further professional assessment.

Gambling turned compulsive

Like sex addiction, pathological gambling is often a hidden addiction. It cannot be detected by a blood or breathalyzer test, and it does not leave needle marks. It is relatively easy for the compulsive gambler to hide lottery tickets, sport picks, visits to casinos, etc. from community members, friends, co-workers and family. Gambling may be a means of escape from personal conflicts or problems in the community, at work or with others. Problem gambling is a catchall term that refers to patterns of gambling that compromise, disrupt, or damage personal, family, community or vocational pursuits.

There are two types of pathological or compulsive gamblers: “action-seeking” gamblers and “escape seeking” gamblers. Both have the same predictable course of addiction and same outcome, but they have very different motivations.

The action seeker is most often male and enjoys the adrenaline rush that accompanies high risk, high stakes gambling. The escape-seeking gambler is more likely to be female with strong avoidant personality traits. She likely is experiencing difficulties with interpersonal relationships and seeking relief from painful emotional experiences. Escape gamblers are particularly drawn to the numbing effects of repetitive play machines, especially video poker.

Regardless of whether they are seeking action or escape, pathological gamblers have difficulty coping with the details and stressors of everyday life, solving problems and engaging effectively in relationships with others. For them, gambling often represents a refuge where they can escape from day-today problems and alleviate psychological pain. Most of the time they believe they can influence, predict or control the outcome of the game, giving them an illusion of control and a sense of security, at least for that moment.

Often pathological gamblers will describe feeling like “they have been in a trance” or “taken on another identity” or “were outside of themselves.” According to California behavioral scientist Durand Jacobs, when gamblers experience these dissociative feelings early in their gambling careers, it indicates a predisposition to becoming a compulsive or pathological gambler.

Signs of compulsive gambling include: large amounts of time spent gambling and little time for family, friends, community, or other interests; progressively larger and more frequent bets; borrowing money from different sources and increasing debt; repeated promises to cut back but inability to stop gambling; frequent high and low moods; depression, restlessness or withdrawal when unable to gamble; lying about whereabouts; preference for gambling over important gatherings and events. Although occasional visits to a casino do not indicate a problem, the risk of problems with gambling increases when gamblers are depressed, angry, rebellious, have a sense of entitlement, have an avoidant personality, or are workaholic or narcissistic.

Gambling in North America once was largely a male preserve. However, the expansion in gambling opportunities over the past decade has coincided with a greater acceptance of gambling among women. Women are now as likely as men to be classified as problem gamblers. This trend is evident among religious communities where women religious are beginning to emerge as the gender group most likely to experience gambling problems.

There are several reasons why more and more women religious are gambling. Besides the easy access, convenience and opportunity to socialize, for some it is an inexpensive way to dress up, get out of their community and avoid loneliness. It can be an expedient way to escape depression, anxiety, boredom and isolation, or simply to reward themselves for a hard day’s work. Recently, I met a woman religious who had won a brand new car worth $24,000. She traded it in for less than $2,000 so that she could stay longer at the casino. For this sister, gambling was not social recreation; nor was it about winning money. Rather she gambled for the excitement of the “action” and to escape from worries, depression and pain.

Men and women religious with gambling problems are aware of the stigma that society attaches to priest and religious problem gamblers—especially in view of their chosen vocation. Sisters especially hold high expectations of themselves and face shame about their imperfections. While men and women religious have a strong sense of responsibility for others, often they tend to neglect their own needs; hence religious who are problem gamblers are often isolated from support. The hidden nature of their gambling means the problem is not readily identified until it reaches the desperation phase when they can no longer finance their gambling. They begin to experience hopelessness, emotional breakdowns or even suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Effect on the addict and the community

There is no doubt that process addiction—whether related to sex, gambling, shopping, food, exercise, etc.—can damage people’s lives and the lives of those around them. All addictive behavior is motivated by positive intent. The motivation could represent a search for completeness, a desire to feel good and a desire to feel at home with one’s self and with others. While addicted individuals long for wholeness, addictive behavior disconnects them from reality, from friends, family and their religious communities. The result is that they feel even more lonely and empty. Hence social isolation and extreme feelings of loneliness lead the addict to depression. The depression may well have predated the addiction, but depression always results from the inability to get out of the vicious cycle of the addictive behavior. Other effects could be difficulty with studies or ministry; mismanagement of funds, leading to debt or theft from community funds; deterioration of the quality of work or decision-making; feelings of remorse, guilt, fear, anxiety or paranoia.

When the addiction grows deeper, the addict becomes overwhelmed with intense shame. Shame is a common denominator in all forms of addictive behavior (Carnes 1991). Patrick Carnes believes that shame is at the core of all addiction and that shame-based persons are particularly vulnerable to addiction. When ashamed of the hidden problem, the addict may rage against those around him or her in an effort to insulate the self against exposure and pain by transferring the shame onto others. Rage functions to keep others away so no one will suspect or question the addict’s behaviors. It also allows the addict to be enraged at others, creating a crisis rather than noticing his or her own feelings of shame. Another observable defense against the addict’s shame is contempt—contempt of others may be an attempt by the addict to bolster his or her feelings of low self-worth and selfcontempt caused by the burden of shame. In viewing others contemptuously, addicts no longer feel their own shame and pain. If the addict fails to stop the addiction, he or she may become preoccupied with perfection to make up for a sense of unworthiness. Over-moralizing, religious preoccupation, “rigidity,” and over-control regarding body functions, such as eating or exercise, may be manifestations of this defense. The addict hopes to present an image to others of being perfect so no one suspects the hidden shame and out-of-control behavior.

A spiritual deadening takes place. The longer the addiction goes on, the more spiritually isolated the person becomes—the saddest and most frightening aspect of addiction. Since addiction is a direct assault against the self, it is also a direct attack on the spirit or soul of the person suffering from any form of addiction. Since a chemical or behavior blocks the person’s ability to effectively connect with his or her own spirit, there is little chance to connect with the spirit of others or with the Spirit of God.

The addict’s strange, observable behavior puts community members in the position of trying to figure out what might be going on with the addict, and this can sometimes lead to rumors in the community that may or may not be true. The religious community members are particularly affected by the lack of the addict’s connectedness with other community members, such as being absent from prayer time, meal time and community activities and events. The addict will always come up with reasons or excuses when confronted, and this usually evokes anger and resentment from the community members toward the addicted person. The anger and resentment may or may not be expressed directly to the addict, but the community can become polluted with the unexpressed anger by the community members. The confusion and difficulty for the community members stems from not being able to put their hands on what is going on with the individual, due to the hidden nature of process addiction.

Tips for vocation ministers

We live in a society with many people addicted to chemicals or behaviors. Candidates to religious life come from this very mix of people. Some of these candidates may be more at risk of developing some form of addiction than others, due to their predisposition to the addictive process. Vocation ministers face the task of screening candidates and encouraging ongoing assessment at different stages to determine each candidate’s level of functioning in the community. First and foremost, a thorough assessment by the vocation minister is critical. The interview questions that a vocation director asks need to be direct, but not leading, and they should be presented in a manner that makes the candidate feel comfortable and safe enough to answer honestly. Vocation ministers must always keep in mind that candidates are not going to feel comfortable discussing sexual thoughts and behaviors or other types of process addictions during an interview, especially if the assessment is a one-time interview. The most effective assessment allows time for building a relationship between vocation ministers and candidates. In addition to the vocation director’s own interview, it is critical to have a professional psychological assessment done. A psychologist may be able to uncover many unconscious defenses and the anxiety behind them.

Clergy and religious who come from family backgrounds characterized by rigidity and dysfunction, with themes of abuse and neglect, may suffer early attachment disturbances. These disturbances appear to be a key root cause of both narcissism and sexual addiction. Compulsivity and obsession offer some relief from the pain and rage of the disrupted self in those who are too defended to find comfort in healthy intimacy.

These deep-set psychological wounds are themes that should emerge if a thorough psychological assessment is done. Combined with the vocation director’s own interview and experiences with candidates, information about existing addictions or a predisposition to addiction is critical.

Problem drinking, drugs or behavior can wreak havoc on an entire religious community. Yet, awareness brings the hope of recovery and healing. Vocation ministers may find themselves at the front lines of a battle with addiction, and their own pastoral and professional response can be the first step toward wholeness. A vocation minister’s early recognition of a process addiction gives the candidate the opportunity to step back and address his or her problem before pursuing the rigors of formation.


Carnes, Patrick J. Don’t Call it Love: Recovery from Sexual Addiction. Bantam, 1991.

Carnes Patrick J. “Implication for Spiritual Formation.” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. Vol. 1 (1994).

Carnes, Patrick J. Out of the Shadows, Understanding Sexual Addiction. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2001.

Carnes, Patrick J., David L. Delmonico, Elizabeth Griffen. In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2001.

Cooper, Al, David L. Delmonico and Ron Burg. “Cybersex Users, Abusers, and Compulsives: New Findings and Implications.” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. Vol. 7.1-2 (2000).

Earie, R. Lonely All the Time. New York: Pocket Books, 1989.

Griffin-Shelley, Eric. “Outpatient Treatment of Sex and Love Addicts.” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. Vol. 3.2 (1996).

Rosetti, Steve. “Treatment for Clergy Sex Addicts.” Presentation to the Second North American Conference for Bishops and Major Superiors on Critical Personnel Issues. Toronto, Ontario, 1998.


Noah: first addict on record?
These verses from Genesis 9:20-24 are interpreted by many to show classic alcoholic behavior.

Now Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of the wine, he became drunk and lay naked inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside about it. Shem and Japeth, however, took a robe and holding it on their backs, they walked backward and covered their father’s nakedness; since their faces were turned the other way, they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah woke up from his drunkenness and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”


Red flags for process addictions
Frequently what seem like innocuous behaviors could be indicators of a problem. Possible warning signs of a process addition include:
• chronic lateness for assigned tasks,
• unaccountability for time away from the community,
• depression,
• recurrent forgetfulness,
• fabrication of stories,
• isolation,
• difficulty in relationships with community members,
• excessive financial concerns,
• sudden changes from normal behavior including loss of interest in work, ministry or community events and activities.


Christiana Ashabo is a certified addiction counselor and addiction relapse prevention specialist at Southdown Institute, near Toronto, Ontario, and in private practice. She has published several articles on the subject of process addictions and has presented seminars and workshops on the topic as well.


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