A Parade of Everyday Addicts
- Monday, August 11, 2008
I did it to myself. It wasn’t society…it wasn’t a pusher, it wasn’t being blind or being black or being poor. It was all my doing.
I’m an addict. Most of us are.
There, I’ve said it. Wanting to write about addictions for a long time, I finally received the green light from my publisher.
My publishing team sat around the conference table sipping Cokes, lattes, and bottled water, listening to my sales pitch. Finally, Elisa, one of the editors, asked quizzically, “Can a book about addictions really sell?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied, glancing around the room at the concerned faces. “But I do know this: We’re a nation of addicts, and it seems like we ought to be talking about it. We pretend that addictions only happen to other people. That’s not true.”
“There’s an image out there,” Elisa said, “that if you admit to having problems with an addiction, people will think you’re like drug addicts. The kind who steal to support their habit and have lost their teeth, their health, their kids, and their home. They’re in such denial about the whole issue that they wouldn’t want help if you offered it.”
Several team members nodded in agreement.
Kirk, from sales, got up and poured himself another cup of coffee.
“We’ve drawn this imaginary line,” I added. “It’s them, the addicts, and us, the normal ones.”
“So,” Donna from acquisitions said, “is something wrong with that kind of thinking?” Just then her cell phone rang. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking a moment to check the caller before turning her phone off. “I thought I turned this thing off.”
“There’s a lot wrong with that kind of thinking,” I continued. “I want to talk about everyday addictions. The kind that affect each of us. I’m not pointing any fingers, but I like my lattes every day. I like to tell myself coffee’s just a passion. But to be honest, I’d have a hard time living without it.”
“Sounds familiar,” Kirk added, smiling.
“I’ve also struggled with work addiction, but I like to tell myself I’m just a hard worker. I still carry my Palm with me wherever I go, and my laptop is always within reach.
”Donna smiled anxiously. “You’re hitting close to home,” she said.
“There are the addicts that sit next to us in church or work in the cubicle next to ours. They live next door, and their kids play with our kids. We’re afraid to talk about these addictions because we fear being seen as stereotypical drug addicts.”
“I’m still not sure I’m getting it,” Kirk said impatiently, glancing down at his watch. “Either you’re an addict or you’re not, and if you are, your life is probably out of control. I’m still not sure about the market for this kind of book.”
“It’s not a black-or-white problem,” I said. “These are everyday addicts, people who still function and work and shop where we work and shop. People like you and me.”
“I’m surprised we’re struggling so much with this concept,” said Donna. “Of course there are everyday addictions. I’ll admit that I’m an Internet junkie, and my husband would be smiling if he were here listening to this conversation. It’s not a joke, though I’ve got to admit I’ve never thought of it as an addiction.”
“You’re slowly coming out of denial,” I said smiling. “This is good. We’re making progress in our group therapy session today.”
“I think I’m beginning to understand,” Kirk added. “However, I’m still not sure people want to hear this message.”
“Of course they don’t want to hear the message,” I said. “That’s precisely why we’re obligated to send it. Someone has to come out of denial long enough to consider the possibility that we’ve all got addictive traits and symptoms. Many of us are card-carrying addicts even though we go to church every week and hold down full-time jobs. We’re addicted to everyday things like coffee, cell phones, Coke, and shopping.”
By now, the team was starting to get it: Everyday addicts are everywhere, and we shouldn’t be too quick to exclude ourselves.
“This is also the perfect opportunity,” I continued, “to show people how everyday addictions, habits, and compulsions hamper our freedom to be all that God wants us to be. That’s really the point of the book. Addictions nail us to our particular drug of choice and limit our freedom. God brings freedom to our lives.”
“You know,” Kirk said thoughtfully, “the more I think about this, the more excited I get. Christians need to be talking about addictions. We have answers to issues of addiction and bondage. We have power from our relationship in Christ—true freedom.”
“Yes,” I said, “and I want to offer hope and help to the hard-core addict, the soft-core addict, and the everyday addict. I want to bring our faith to bear on these issues.”
Perhaps you can relate. You go to work every day. You’ve got kids and a home, and you hold down a full-time job. Yet you struggle with compulsive behaviors common to many others. That’s why this book is for you. Together we’ll learn about addictions—we’ll talk about something most of us try to avoid. And we’ll discover answers and see what Scripture has to say on the matter.
In the Next Pew
Picture yourself in a church. The sanctuary is full. Standing in front of a 300-member church, I give the following instructions:
“I want everyone to stand and close your eyes. I’m going to list a number of common problems. Sit down if one rings true for you.
“If you’ve struggled with compulsive eating, anorexia, bulimia, the use of laxatives for weight loss, or excessive fears about body image, please sit down.
“Anyone who’s struggled with compulsive drinking, illicit substances, or overuse of prescription medications, please sit down.
“If you’ve struggled with compulsive gambling, spending, or shopping, please sit down. That includes compulsive garage sale and e-Bay shopping.” Nervous giggles are heard as more people sit down.
“Anyone who’s struggled with sexual addiction, including serial affairs, serial dating, pornography, or compulsive masturbation, please sit down.
“Everyone who’s struggled with work addiction, please sit down. This includes compulsively checking your e-mail, obsessively scanning the Internet for your favorite daily blog, and issues with power and control at work.
“Anyone who’s struggled with compulsive television or movie viewing, please sit down.
“Everyone who’s struggled with compulsive exercise addiction or competition addiction, please sit down.
“If you’ve struggled from the ravages of seeking approval from others, please sit down. This includes problems with codependency.”
The remaining 12 people were noticeably anxious, shifting positions and fidgeting. They had their eyes closed, but they’d heard their fellow worshippers dropping out in droves. Now they wondered whether they were addiction free or if I was ready to point one out that fit them.
“Now, those who struggle with compulsive worry, perfectionism, and religious addictions, please sit down.”
“Okay,” I say. “Open your eyes.”
Someone yells out, “I can’t believe it!”
One man and one woman are still standing.
“Those still standing, please sit down,” I say. “We don’t know everyone’s story, but what is clearly apparent is that the vast majority of us face common, everyday addictions. We’re all in this boat together. Thankfully, we can experience freedom from addictions, and the first powerful step is coming out of the silent and secretive shadows of shame and into the light of grace, surrender, and acceptance.”
The Conspiracy of Silence
I’ve always wanted to conduct this kind of exercise. I believe it would do much to end the shame we have about our compulsive and addictive behaviors. What relief people would feel as they looked around and realized that everyone struggles with some addiction or compulsion. What a relief to know and admit that all of us are flawed and in need of God’s grace and tender care as well as the care of a supportive group of people who are struggling with the same issues.
But what about our imaginary scene of those two people left standing? Were they really free from addictive or compulsive thinking or behavior? I doubt it. I suspect they were caught in the throes of denial (Don’t Even Notice I Am Lying). For many people, coming clean with their problems is difficult. Many in our world won’t jump on the bandwagon to admit their problems, but this need not stop us from being open and honest about our problems.
We’re caught up in an amazing conspiracy of silence. We want to see the world neatly divided into those with addictions and those without. We don’t acknowledge that those who claim to be free from addictions merely appear normal and refuse to talk about their addictive and compulsive behaviors. This leaves them to suffer alone in shame. It also focuses even more attention on those who clearly struggle with addictions. This dichotomy is completely false. If we are honest, willing to shed the heavy cloak of denial, we notice addicts everywhere—even in our own home.
Only in recent years have we begun to offer legitimate treatment for some of the obvious addictions, such as alcohol and drug abuse. We even endorse such programs in our churches. However, we still don’t recognize the myriad other addictions, let alone help people deal with them.
The bottom line is that we’re all addicted to something. Although we have been taught to think of addict as a dirty word, it is an apt description for all of us relatively normal people.
Let’s consider several aspects of everyday addictions.
First, an addiction is a compulsive physical and psychological dependence on habit-forming substances, like nicotine, alcohol, or drugs, or on processes, such as shopping, eating, or sex. The substances give us a physiological high. Meanwhile, “process addictions,” where we engage compulsively in activities such as gambling, viewing pornography, video gaming, or shopping, also change our mood.
Second, we continue to engage in these mood-altering activities in spite of obvious negative consequences. We know that smoking is bad for our health, but we can’t seem to stop. We know that staying at the slot machines well past our determined curfew or beyond our self-imposed spending limit is destructive, but we can’t seem to pull ourselves away. We know that eating more than we need is detrimental to our health, but that doesn’t stop us.
Third, we often need more and more of the substance or behavior to get the desired high. In other words, our tolerance increases. We continue eating well beyond satiation. We spend more than we can afford, hoping to regain a good feeling. We continue to gamble in order to win back what we have lost or to hit “the big one.” We continue to drink until we literally cannot drink any more. And the more we drink, the more we need to drink to gain the desired effect.
Fourth, we lie about and deny our behavior because we are ashamed. Inside, we know our lives are out of control. We know someone will be displeased with our actions, and so, in an attempt to avoid negative consequences, we lie about them. We hide our alcohol use from others; we hide the new clothes we purchased and tell our mates that we bought them months ago; we are dishonest about our frequency of gambling and the losses we’ve incurred; we’re dishonest about the hours we spend working. This deception, of course, only compounds our problems.
Finally, we allow our lives to become unmanageable. At some point the wheels fall off the cart. Our mates say they can no longer tolerate our drinking. Our bosses fire us because of our repeated failure to get work done on time after the late-night poker parties. We hide in shame because of the 50 extra pounds we carry. We’re so tied to our cell phones that we begin to annoy our spouse, our friends, and even ourselves. We’re out of control. We’ve given up the power of our lives to a substance or behavior. We’ve lost our ability to make healthy choices.
Having lost control of your life, you’re still stuck in denial. You still believe you can fly under the radar. You still have your job, your spouse, your home, your bank account, and your faith. You’re feeling a bit smug because you believe you’re still in complete control of your life. You’re certain you would have been one of those left standing when the roll was called.
Not so fast.
Is it possible that addiction and compulsion have struck your life as well, but you’ve anesthetized yourself so you don’t feel the pain? Are you vaguely aware of feeling distanced from others because of your particular compulsion or addiction? Do you feel stifled in your personal and spiritual growth? Do you feel hidden shame and guilt? Might you be harboring hidden problems you’ve never called addictions?
Consider these common scenarios:
Sheryl has had yo-yo weight problems her entire life. Now 40, she’s tried every gimmick diet and attended countless weight-loss programs, but she exceeds her ideal weight by 75 pounds. She’s learned to accommodate her problem. Although she hates being heavy, she’s rationalized the problem and works overtime to tell herself that she must be comfortable in her own skin. She’s anesthetized herself to the pain of her eating addiction and continues to gain more weight each year. Her health is in jeopardy, her self-esteem has been damaged, and her marriage suffers. Still, she’s quit calling her weight a problem because admitting the truth simply causes too much pain.
Jed is a 30-year-old workaholic, a Microsoft engineer who averages 60 hours a week. Like many of his coworkers, he carries a “CrackBerry” (BlackBerry) on his hip as a badge of admission into the hardworking, upwardly mobile society. He’s well-rewarded for his work and rarely thinks about the hours he puts in. His wife works equally hard as a financial analyst, and only rarely does either of them mention the possibility of slowing down. They have silently agreed not to talk about their problem. They’re anesthetized to the pain that comes from having too little time for friendships, leisure activities, and quality time with their children. They’re tired and irritable, and the luster is wearing off their marriage—but still they continue to push forward as if nothing were wrong.
Carl is a gambler. He can be found nightly at a local casino. He insists that he rarely spends more than what he can afford, though he acknowledges that he hides the true amount of his losses from his wife. She doesn’t confront him. In fact, she often joins him. Both are in their late forties and know their retirement monies are paying for blackjack and slots, but neither wants to change. Their working lives are boring, their marriage is boring, and the casino offers them a respite from the pain. They’ve anesthetized themselves to the problem by denying that it exists.
Kathy is a 35-year-old mother of three who spends much of her time worrying about her depressed mother. Her mother calls her daily and complains about her life. The oldest of four children, Kathy has always been “the responsible one.” She knows she cannot “fix” her mother, but she feels compelled to keep trying, to the detriment of her own well-being. She alternates between feeling exhausted, angry, hurt, sad, and discouraged when obsessing about her mother. Secretly, she also feels powerful, needed, and important when attempting to control her mother’s moods. She’s addicted to this codependent and destructive relationship.
I could go on, telling story after story of addictive and compulsive behavior that hasn’t yet reached a crisis point. This parade of addictions is with us every day in every walk of life. We anesthetize our pain with our substance or behavior of choice, secretly hoping we’ll never have to face the power of our problems.
A Parade of Addictions
In case I haven’t convinced you yet that we’re a parade of addicts, let’s make a list of everyday addictions. Let’s take a look at the activities and substances that can hook us. Let’s look at the ways we can lose our souls to the powers of these addictions, relinquishing our ability to choose what is best for us along the way. Here are some everyday addictions:
drugs, alcohol, and gambling
food, caffeine, and sugar
sex and pornography
work and perfectionism
codependency, approval, and worry
spending, shopping, and coupon-clipping
television, video, and video-gaming
exercise and sports
love, romance, and romance novels
money, accumulation, and success
e-mail, Internet, and chat rooms
power and anger
The list could go on and on. I suspect you have recognized my point: Virtually anything can become a compulsion and qualify as an everyday addiction.
Humans are prone to addiction and compulsive behaviors. What begins as a benign activity, such as buying something on the Internet, can gradually become addictive. For some people, innocuous and infrequent spending soon becomes obsessive—they do it more and more, hiding their behaviors from others. For others, random outings to the casino become an infatuation with the neon lights and the glimmer of winning something big. They move from infrequent outings to an obsessive attachment to the activity, cloaking their behavior in secrecy and denial. For others, the occasional dinner party and single glass of wine slips easily into two or three glasses of wine nightly. Soon they’re hooked!
Society as Addict
Why can we so easily be hooked? Why are we self-controlled in one area of our lives and completely unable to set limits in another?
Anne Wilson Schaef has an interesting perspective on the matter. Schaef, author of When Society Becomes an Addict, says the addictions we can see are only the tip of the iceberg and that society itself reinforces addictions by ignoring their presence. She believes that no one has only one addiction. Instead, we all have multiple addictions, characterized by self-centeredness, dishonesty, preoccupation with control, abnormal thinking processes, repressed feelings, and ethical deterioration. She asserts that our society not only encourages addictions but sees them as normal. As someone recovers from one addiction, another is likely to surface.
Is this why we smile when we mention addiction to caffeine, nicotine, food, cell phones, and e-mail? Schaef’s theory makes sense. Few people are screaming about the rampant obesity in our society. Few are carping about our addictive interest in television, movies, or movie stars, or the tremendous negative influence these have on us. Few even decry the moral deterioration caused by pornography. Like television and the movies, these are considered “victimless” problems.
Everyday addictions, however, are not innocuous problems. Though they are everyday, they bring serious trouble. They are addictions, whether large or small, accepted or treated with contempt. The excuse that “the rest of society is doing it” doesn’t make a behavior less harmful.
This is serious stuff that affects each of us. It may not be pleasant to talk about, but the truth will set us free.
No Longer Choosing
Addictions are particularly debilitating because they undermine our power to choose. Although we certainly make the decision to take the first drag on a cigarette and perhaps even the second or third, we quickly become hooked.
We choose to pull the first lever of the slot machine, but very quickly those “one-arm bandits” are choosing us. Our choice becomes a compulsion, and we can’t say no.
For years we’ve considered the addict weak willed, as though he belongs to some lower class. Meanwhile, those from the upper class who succumb to an addiction have been whisked away to some posh, private facility for rehab. We still maintain a similar view of addictions. We believe we cannot become addicted if we are spiritual enough, powerful enough, strong enough, or smart enough. With enough willpower, we will be safe.
Wrong. It’s not a matter of willpower. You have willpower to not take the first drink, the first puff on a cigarette, or your first peek at pornography. But once you take that first step, choice quickly begins to disappear.
Because we believe that only the weak become addicted, we naively think we can dabble with substances and other activities without getting hooked. Listen to the words of one man who shared his situation with me recently.
“I couldn’t believe how quickly I got hooked on pornography. One day an image popped up on my computer. No one was home, and I looked at it for a while. Once I viewed it, I was aroused and hit on some links to other sites. I’m not even sure how it happened, but within weeks I was racing home in the middle of the day to spend time on pornographic websites. I’d still be doing it today if my wife hadn’t caught me. I feel humiliated and embarrassed, not to mention the fact that my productivity at work began to decline.”
Not surprisingly, his wife was furious with him. She accused him of being sick, weak willed, and twisted. But he was actually none of the above. He was addicted, that’s all. Not weak willed, not twisted, not sick. Addicted.
Some people will surely accuse me of letting this man off the hook. But I’m not letting him off the hook—he’s clearly on it. He’s hooked all right, by his addiction. Some people will continue to label him, but he and I know he is a good man with morals, values, and strong convictions. He simply gave in to temptation and then, because of his makeup, became addicted.
The Pleasure Principle
Sigmund Freud discovered another important principle that is absolutely apropos to our discussion on addictions. Freud said that we are all inclined to seek immediate gratification through pleasure and to avoid pain. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, talks about avoiding problems:
Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain. We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is nothing new. Solomon wrote about the meaninglessness of pleasures:
And what does pleasure accomplish? I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives…I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure…Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2:2-3,10-11).
The wisest man of his time tells us that seeking pleasure is common—and, in many ways, fruitless. We seek it, but it does not give us what we ultimately need, which is to find our purpose and meaning in God. It is a temporary relief from pain.
We all want to avoid pain, and seeking relief from our everyday struggles leads to our everyday addictions. Seeking relief from our problems leads us to the very substances and activities that alter our brain chemistry and have us running back for more regardless of the negative consequences.
I’m being serious when I say that we’re all brain damaged.
Addictions have been clearly linked to certain chemicals released in the brain, thus leading us to seek certain forms of relief again and again. Because we’re all part of the mass of everyday addicts, we’re all, by definition, a bit brain damaged.
An illicit drug is taken the first time by choice to relieve depression or stress or for recreational purposes. We become involved in an activity because it is enjoyable. Soon, however, our ability to choose is weakened. Why? Because repeated drug use or certain repetitive and compulsive activities disrupt well-balanced systems in the brain. Repeated use of marijuana, cocaine, or alcohol causes a surge in levels of a brain chemical called dopamine, resulting in a feeling of pleasure. (And remember, we’re all suckers for pleasure.) The brain remembers this feeling of pleasure and wants to repeat it, thus creating a dependency that can soon become an addiction.
Brain researchers have discovered that particular activities can trigger the release of our own feel-good drugs called endorphins. Although these natural pain-relieving neurotransmitters make us feel good, we can also become addicted to them. Thus, when addicted gamblers or shoppers are satisfying their cravings, endorphins are produced and released within the brain, creating a high and reinforcing the people’s positive associations with the activity. As with illicit drugs, consistently engaging in addictive activities is also believed to cause excessive stimulation and leads eventually to tolerance and dependence.
Addictive substances and behaviors also affect regions of the brain that help us control our desires and emotions. The resulting lack of control leads addicted people to compulsively pursue substances or activities even when these substances or behaviors are no longer intrinsically rewarding.
Gerald May, in his wonderful book Addiction and Grace, helps us understand how all of this applies to our commonplace, everyday addictions. “The same kind of cellular dynamics apply to nonsubstance addictions. If we had been talking about addiction to money, power, images of ourselves or of God, we could have said much the same about what happens to our nerve cells.”
May goes on to offer us a very practical example of how little habits can become addictive.
Consider a very minor addiction, one that seems to harbor no special destructiveness. Let us say that I have established a routine of having a cup of coffee and reading the paper before starting the day. I enjoy the quiet, undemanding quality of this time and would be loathe to call it an addiction. But, I have been engaging in this little routine for years, and the cells of my brain have become adapted to it. They are used to the whole sequence of the time: the gentle slowness of waking up, the familiarity of my favorite chair, the gradual stimulation of the reading, the friendly jolt of the coffee’s caffeine playing out its own little addiction fix, the sounds of the house waking up all around me. All the countless sensations and behaviors of this time become mutually associated in patterned sequences of synapses, with billions of cells having become adapted to certain amounts of neurotransmitters in certain ways at certain times.
Were this pattern to become disrupted, May would feel the irritability and shakiness associated with withdrawal symptoms. Although his symptoms would be far less severe than those of alcoholics coming off binges or drug addicts coming down from their drug of choice, a vast number of brain cells would still be involved.
Such is also the case for our everyday addictions. We feel out of sorts when we lose our cell phone or are unable to check our e-mail for a few days or perhaps even a few hours. We feel disconcerted if we cannot indulge in our nightly glass of wine or weekend shopping trip.
We’re uncomfortable if our television goes on the blink and we’re left having to converse with one another.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Just before saying this, however, He said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” Jesus connects freedom to being disciples. He offers a path out of the bondage of addictions—the path of discipleship.
We know this principle, yet we remain reluctant truth seekers. We remain unwilling disciples, choosing instead to believe that we can find our own way out of the wilderness. We’ve gone hundreds of years without openly talking about addiction—the proverbial elephant in the room. Why talk about it now? Haven’t we been doing just fine letting the beast roam freely as long as it’s not affecting anyone? Haven’t we done fine on our own?
Let’s get this straight: Elephants don’t roam freely without affecting people. They poop; they smell; they bump into things, crowd our living spaces, and generally wreak havoc. In future chapters, we’ll talk about the effect the elephant in the room has on our ability to function. Furthermore, we are not doing so well winging it on our own. We’re employing massive denial when we claim that elephants are nothing more than a nuisance and that we can manage our lives just fine, thank you.
Why talk about it now? Because we’ve been introduced to concepts such as codependency and boundaries and have a hunch that the problem is larger than we believed, so perhaps we’re ready to hear more about it.
We’re also developing addictions at faster and faster rates. Methamphetamine abuse has exploded in recent years, as have e-mail, cell phone, and Internet addictions. You can almost hear the clanging of balls and chains as we meander through life. We’re not free—we live in an addicted society, and our addictions are increasing.
Finally, we’re talking about it now because it’s time to break free from everyday addictions. It’s time to look in the mirror and determine whether we’ve become enslaved to some addictive substance or activity. Whether your everyday addiction is debilitating methamphetamine abuse or a more socially acceptable addiction to e-mail, these behaviors and substances have the power to enslave us.
As we travel together through this book, I invite you to consider the possibility that all of us are encumbered with everyday addictions that control us. All of us desperately need freedom from substances or activities that restrict us to a particular way of behaving. We yearn for a free life.
Addiction Does Not Discriminate
Addiction doesn’t just happen to the derelict. Addiction is not simply a problem for the emaciated heroin addict. Addiction isn’t relegated to back alleys.
We have to understand that we have found the addict, and the addict is us. You and me. Our mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. Our best friends and our worst enemies. Everyday addictions are commonplace, testing the rich and famous as well as the middle-class suburbanites. Everyday addictions attack those who are poor in faith and rich in faith.
The truth of the matter is that no one is a cookie-cutter addict—we come in all sizes and shapes. We’re a mishmash of cocaine addicts, cell phone addicts, food addicts, and gambling addicts. We overspend, overwork, shop too much, and become entangled in sexual sins. We’re addicted to innumerable drugs and activities that create a wide range of everyday addicts.
So we have many different kinds of addicts, and many are Christians. They come in all faiths, ages, shapes, sizes, and economic backgrounds. We’d like to think we’re insulated from these problems, but this simply isn’t true. In fact, as many addicts are inside the church as outside.
I’m pushing for us to get comfortable with the notion. The first step is to nod your head and sit down!
Copyright © 2008 by Dr. David Hawkins
Published by Harvest House Publishers
Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law.
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