I remember first reading May in the late 1980s. I was reading his section on addiction to control and underlining everything. God was speaking to me and, by his Spirit and through May's writing, showing me my own control-freakness and beginning to release me from it. Thirty years later I see that the heavy chains of bondage to my "need" to be in control have fallen away.
Radical engagement in the spiritual disciplines became vehicles of grace and healing for me. As Richard Foster wrote in A Celebration of Discipline, "God wants to free you from the terrible burden of always having to get things your own way." Initially that did not sound like a big burden to me. Who wouldn't want everything to go one's own way? It would seem wonderful to have the Burger King slogan "Have it your way" metaphysically instantiated into one's life.
But alas, Henri Nouwen told me that, by his estimate, 90% of life is out of our control. So we really only control 10% of all that happens? I doubt things are even that good. I am certain that most of life and my life and your life and what happens in life are out of control; i.e., out of our control. So to be addicted to being in control sounds like the hell of a dangling carrot placed before a rabbit and held by Samuel Beckett.
May writes: "Addiction is any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire. It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects. The word behavior is especially important in this definition, for it indicates that action is essential to addiction... [A]ttachment of desire is the underlying process that results in addictive behavior." (24-25)
What then happens neurophysiologically is the same irregardless of the object of attachment. Neurally, addiction to nose drops, potato chips, control, pornography, or heroin looks the same. May has an entire chapter on the neurophysiology of addiction.
In trying to defeat addiction "willpower" is useless. "As soon as one tries to control any truly addictive behavior by making autonomous intentional resolutions, one begins to defeat oneself... A fundamental mind trick of addiction is focusing attention on willpower. In very complicated ways, the mind asserts that it in fact can control the behavior. At certain points, it even encourages making resolutions to stop. it knows such resolutions are likely to fail, and when they do, the addictive behavior will have a stronger foothold than ever. It make take many such defeats before one realizes how truly out of control one is." Ironically, a control addict is under the illusion that they can control their addiction to being in control, and in this grand delusion don't realize how truly out of control they are.
May, a clinical psychiatrist (M.D.) who was also a Jesus-follower, shows the way out of addiction and into freedom. His ch. 7, entitled "Empowerment: Grace and Will in Overcoming Addiction," is beautiful. It begins: "For the power of addiction to be overcome, human will must act in concert with divine will. The human spirit must flow with the Holy Spirit. Personal power must be aligned with the power of grace." May gives clinical examples of people breaking free from unholy attachments. As for myself, I believe more than ever that my branch-attachment to Jesus the Vine is the answer, and has proven itself experientially over the past 30 years.