Some Things You May Not Know About Substance Abuse: You may not have gotten yourself into this mess, but it’s your responsibility to get yourself out

Addiction lands you right square in the middle of an ancient controversy between deterministic views of human behavior and the belief in free will. This is not just a philosophic or academic issue. What you believe about your ability to make choices will affect the choices you make. In fact, you’ll only make choices if you think you have choices. What others believe about your ability to make choices will affect how they treat you, whether they have sympathy for your plight or are more inclined to cast you into darkness where you cry and gnash your teeth.

On one side is the view that addicted people cannot control their craving. Scientist types, have shown all kinds of genetic and other biological factors that predispose people to addiction. Medical types assert that addiction is a disease that requires medical treatment rather than willpower. Then there’s Alcoholics Anonymous, which preaches the powerlessness of the individual in the face of addiction. Finally, there are active addicts themselves, who may be only too happy to claim that they can’t help it and if you only would allow them to have their drug, everything would be fine.

On the other side of the debate are those who would like to throw the book at addicts and toss them all in jail for willfully violating societal standards. It’s time to get tough, they say, and cut through all the nonsense and excuses. The wine does not pour itself down your throat. You are the one who choses to do the things you do; no one is forcing you.
I don’t pretend that I’m going to be able to settle this debate once and for all. Many have tried and failed. I have a theory, though, and will follow it with a small observation.
First my theory.

The scientists are right. There are strong factors that predispose people to addiction. The medical types are right. Well, mostly right. Strictly speaking, addiction isn’t quite a disease; there is no pathogen, like the flu virus, a simple genetic determinant, like Huntington’s, or a pathological process, like diabetes. Addiction is a lot like a disease, though, and people certainly need help. Punishment does not deter and willpower needs a jumpstart. Finally, AA is right. Put a bag of coke in front of a cocaine addict and it will overpower him.

However, I think you can do better than that and can learn to manage your cravings if you have a reason to do so and a little practice.

Think of addiction as a kind of state of nature from which you are trying to emerge. Call it a bug in the program that makes it hard to let go of things that are pleasurable, yet unhealthy. It’s time to transcend your limitations.

People are always facing the limitations nature imposes and going beyond them. We weren’t happy with it getting dark every night, so we invented lights. When we wanted to communicate, we invented language. When we found that our words could not carry beyond the sound of a voice, we invented writing, reading, printing, and the wonders of the web. We were tired of being earthbound, so, by gum, we fashioned wings and took off. It’s not easy, but we do it all the time.

Many of these developments involve fabricating technology, but many others involve changing ourselves and our capabilities, with help. A dancer wants to look as though she barely touches the ground, so she practices walking on her toes. This is not natural, no more natural than saying no to drugs is for you, but, under the tutelage of a dance instructor and steadied by a barre, she keeps at it and it gets easier.

A toddler, who, his entire, brief life, has been content to shit his pants and not think anything of it, learns bowel control, spurred on by his parents. It’s not natural to wait to use the potty, just like it’s not natural to say no to your desires, but it is more hygienic.
My point is that free will is not naturally something we possess, but it’s something we develop in the same way that we developed language, culture, and soy latte macchiatos. Nature does not provide us with free will, but, when we need it, we learn it. The scientists, medical people, AA members and active addicts who say that, as you are, you cannot help but obey your addiction are right. As you are, you are lost in your addiction; but you can change and, in many cases, you have no choice; you have to. That’s when you develop free will.

You need help though. What toddler ever potty trained himself? How many dancers have been entirely self taught? I suppose it can happen, but it often doesn’t.

Now for my observation.

It is the active addicts who most often believe in determinism and it is the recovering ones who believe in free will.

Successful people believe they can be effectual. They have faith in themselves. They act as though their actions matter. They take responsibility. Unsuccessful people wait for others or circumstances to do it for them or say it can’t be done. They make excuses and look for someone or something else to blame.

Which do you want to be?

OK, I’ll take it for granted you want to be successful, but you still have questions. How do you start to believe you have the freedom to chose? Is it possible to talk yourself into it? You’ve got to find your free will before you can learn to use it. So, where can you find it?
You already have it; a little.

Even when you were in the middle of your use, you had a tremendous amount of choice as to where, when, and how to indulge your desire. You could cop from this dealer, or that. You’d buy this variety or that. You can smoke it, snort it, or inject it. You could shoot up at 6:45 am or 6:46 am. You could be alone or with others. You could inject it in your right arm or left arm. You selected your dosage. You could smoke it all or stop in the middle. Even within the confines of a severe addiction, you still have lots of choices and there are no genetics, disease, or power greater than yourself that determines those choices.

To get from making choices within the confines of an addiction to choosing abstinence may take you several steps. You might chose to be honest with someone who cares about the problem while you are still in your addiction. You might extend the interval between hits. You may be able to chose to be abstinent just for today without choosing to be abstain forever. You may chose to go to detox or rehab and reserve the right to return to use later. None of the steps alone will get you clear of the addiction, but they’re a start. They show you have the ability to choose.

Very few people recover from their addiction all at once, anyway. The normal course is to make some progress and then backslide. I think this is what people are working out. They are learning that they have the ability to choose.