The Literary Mind

Life, literature, and politics, from the inside out.

Not Everyone Needs to Be "Motivated" to Kick a Habit

You don't need to be "motivated" to kick a habit.

I'm an Intervention addict. That's the reality T.V. show on A&E in which the cameras record a few weeks in the life of a person with addiction then stages a surprise family intervention.

Each episode treats a voyeur's desires: You get to watch someone drink or drug herself into financial ruin, mental injury, and isolation. The person suffering addiction lets the cameras roll under the premise that she's participating in a documentary about addiction.

It's only in the last 10 minutes of each episode that the user's family comes in to surprise her, to perform an intervention. The person with addiction walks into a room to find her family there; she resists what they have to say; and she usually gives in the end, agreeing to go to rehab. Then the last five minutes are quick: We see a short scene at rehab and a 2-12 month follow-up report, which is positive and nuanced insofar as it comments on the steps this person has made toward recovery, including relapse.

I love the structure of this show. One reason I love it is precisely because it gives such an oddly short window to the big event behind the series' title: the Intervention. We've watched 50 minutes of addiction, and then the intervention feels like a hit from the side, a disjointed thing.

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That structure--which tacks on intervention as a last-minute "hit"--likely helps debunk a myth we have about addiction: namely, that people need to have thought a lot about change, or be "motivated," before they start getting sober. It's true that some people are "motivated" toward their sobriety in the traditional way--able to name their problems and new goals. But in most cases, people don't experience such a clear drive for change.

Any motivation to change is conflicted. Whether you have an addiction or not, you have spent time subtly justifying your habits; everyone finds some rationale or comfort in the way she does things. People with addiction do experience negative feelings from their drug or alcohol abuse, like loneliness and pain, but those feelings are almost always intertwined with feelings that motivate the addiction to begin with: a feeling of deserving to make these unpopular choices, of being misunderstood by others, of being cared for by the drug. In this sense, no one is ever fully motivated to leave her present identity.

And many of us do begin our big life changes because of luck, or external pressure, or a change of context which we do not plan or even want. For example, some people stop smoking only after they've spent months in a hospital and so are forced to learn to self-soothe without cigarettes. Or if someone's told she needs to lose 40 pounds, she'll often resist changing habits, because it feels like too much work, or because she defends her current identity. But context can help as if behind the back: She might experience something new--like a trip to Mexico where she's hiking every day and the food is different--and find a new relationship to food that she didn't plan but she likes. A change in context can help insofar as it teaches us about ourselves in unexpected ways, and it can work behind the back of our defenses.

A person who drinks might need to experience 28 sober days before she feels convinced that a bubble bath can soothe her with more consistency and less repercussion than a bottle of wine does.

We learn better in an experiential way than an abstract way. In other words, sometimes we need to experience the sober bubble bath for an extended stretch to re-teach the brain that we like it. Experience teaches in a way that words can't. Experience shows things that words can't predict.

It is probably true that a spoken motivation ("I want to be sober") needs to play a role at some point in therapy. At some point in treatment, a person treating her addiction would need to start to own her sober identity or feel "motivated" to stay sober. But that ownership of sobriety can come slowly. It can come, initially, from an outside "hit."

A&E's Intervention makes no apologies for how it situates the intervention at the end of each episode, unexplained and unwanted. With that short hit, the series suggests that change can come from outside sources-or that addiction is sometimes tackled not by motivation but by surprise.

 

 

Ilana Simons, Ph.D., is a literature professor at The New School as well as a practicing therapist.

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