Overcoming Addiction: Is Willpower Enough?

In the past, becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol was considered to be a sign of weakness, and those who were not able to overcome their chemical dependency were assumed to be lacking in moral character and sheer willpower. But views on this issue have gradually evolved, and it is now recognized that addiction is an illness of the mind and body and that those so afflicted are caught in a spider’s web of suffering from which it can be very difficult to escape.

This is not to suggest that addicts and alcoholics are blameless for the situation they find themselves in; this is most definitely not the case, and if an addict should happen to commit a crime while under the influence of an intoxicant, he can expect to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But in the final analysis, addiction is not a matter of choice but a real illness that no one can expect to overcome through willpower alone, any more than cancer patients could be expected to beat their disease by suddenly deciding one day not to be sick.

The old idea that substance abuse is an ailment of the weak or the wicked is no longer in vogue, which is a very good thing since stigmatizing addicts and labeling them as failures accomplished nothing and never once helped anyone get better.

But there does seem to be a paradox here, one that the observant person cannot help but notice. While a person suffering from cancer will be put on a regimen of powerful drugs, radiation therapy, and possibly undergo surgery, the addict or alcoholic will ultimately be expected to stop drinking or drugging on his own without the help of such heroic intervention. Talk therapy with an addiction specialist combined with regular peer group support attendance is the standard treatment protocol for the recovering substance abuser, who must ultimately stand alone against the temptations, triggers, and ongoing physical and psychological cravings of his addiction if he or she expects to remain clean and sober in the future. Many addicts and alcoholics will fall into relapse at least once following their initial stay in a treatment facility, but even then it will still be up to them to find the courage to get back into the saddle of sobriety and ride it out to the end of the trail.

Willing your way to eternal dependency

It may seem as if willpower is the ultimate determinant in recovery from addiction, but this is based on confusion about what it actually means to embrace sobriety and reject chemical dependency.

Recovering addicts learn effective coping strategies in therapy and in peer group settings that can help them enormously as they attempt to overcome addiction. However, those strategies don’t emphasize resistance as much as they stress the necessity for the addict to reinvent his life on a day-to-day basis. The compulsive aspect of the disease of addiction is powerful, but when recovering substance abusers are able to focus on the need to rebuild their lives from the ground up, they can find the motivation they need to resist the urges that could send them tumbling back into drugs or alcohol. Willpower, far from being an asset in an addict’s recovery, can actually be a hindrance because it teaches the addict to concentrate his mental energies exclusively on the source of his troubles, and that approach seldom results in a favorable outcome.

In 2010, a University of Illinois psychology professor named Ibrahim Senay carried out an eye-opening series of experiments that showed subjects who were given the choice of whether or not to perform a challenging task were actually more successful at completing that task than those who were instructed to push themselves to do it. Several variations of the initial experiment were designed and executed, and each time those who were allowed the freedom to decide if they really wanted to make an effort did better than those who were instructed to will their way to achievement.

Focus on the journey, not rejecting the disease

These findings reinforce a broad collection of anecdotal evidence suggesting that when addicts and alcoholics in recovery are able to give up the struggle against chemical dependency and concentrate instead on just healing their bruised souls in any way they see fit, they do much better over the long haul than those who stubbornly try to conquer their addiction as if it were a foe met on the battlefield. Healing strategies will work marvelously when chosen freely rather than being self-enforced by acts of pure will, and a voluntary and joyful commitment to healing will allow addicts and alcoholics to choose sobriety instead of feeling like they have to stay clean just to prove their worth as human beings.

Willpower is a concept that appeals to the ego but appears to have little usefulness in the real world. Simply deciding to make each day a good day, and following through on that promise quietly but consistently, is the secret to making great life changes, and that includes overcoming the powerful debilitating effects of a disease like drug addiction or alcoholism.

The difference between trying to will your way to sobriety and making a cooperative effort to recover from addiction in coordination with trained counselors, sponsors, peers in support groups, and family members and friends who are glad to help in any way they can, is profound and deep. Only those who understand the value of letting go of the struggle and accepting responsibility for their lives and the choices they make will be able to develop an effective approach for overcoming addiction, and they are the ones who will perform the small miracles of healing that can transform tragedy into triumph.

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