By now, the research is clear: Addiction is a chronic brain disease, not a matter of willpower. This means that, contrary to old stereotypes, people who become addicted to drugs or alcohol are not weak, immoral or tragically flawed.
So if addiction is a chronic brain disease and not a matter of willpower, why do the work to get better? Isn’t it pointless? Not so. Addicts start getting better when they take responsibility for their own sobriety. If someone pushed you down into the mud, it’s not your fault you’re lying face down in a pile of sludge. But if you continue lying there after they walk away, believing that you’re helpless to change the situation, you’ll be in that mud a long time. The same is true with addiction. It’s not your fault that you have this disease, but it is your responsibility to manage the cards you’ve been dealt and to take steps to improve your life.
As anyone who has tried to strong-arm themselves into recovery knows, willpower alone is rarely enough to overcome addiction. Most addicts, at some point, want to quit. They cut ties with drug-abusing friends, they get rid of their stash of drugs, they make heartfelt promises to their loved ones—and, without the appropriate supports in place, many promptly return to their old ways. This pattern is common no matter how strong the addict’s will has been in the past or how intelligent, disciplined or hard-working they are.
The Paradox of Surrender and Willingness
Although addiction is not caused by a lack of willpower, that doesn’t mean willpower is a useless concept in recovery. In fact, willingness is central to addiction recovery. Twelve-step programs call on the addict, in a seeming forfeiture of willpower, to recognize their powerlessness over drugs and alcohol and to ask for help. Paradoxically, by surrendering their will and recognizing that they don’t have all the answers, addicts find the will to recover.
An interesting study by Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign lends scientific support to the recovery concepts of surrender and openness. He found that people who kept their minds open (“Will I do this?”) were more goal-directed and more motivated than the people who firmly declared their objective (“I will do this”). Having the freedom of choice seemed to create more intrinsic motivation—and thus, a greater likelihood of long-term abstinence—than feeling obligated to take a particular course of action.
When Willpower Is Lacking
Recovery requires a leap of faith, backed by the willingness to admit a problem and take responsibility for your choices along with the motivation to work a program of recovery. The decision to put your recovery first requires avoiding the people, places and things that trigger your desire to use drugs. It also requires appropriate self-care; for example, eating a healthy diet, exercising, making time for sober fun and staying in tune with your emotions.
What happens when your willpower wanes and you lose interest in working your recovery program? This is where having a social support network made up of family, friends, peers in recovery, a sponsor and others becomes essential. When your motivation lags, they will be there to remind you why you’re committed to your recovery and to help you stay on track. According to researchers from Florida State University, where self-control is lacking, it can be learned through therapy and other forms of treatment.
Willpower isn’t the way into addiction, but it is part of the way out of addiction. Of course, willpower is just part of the puzzle. Just as someone with diabetes requires medication and lifestyle changes to successfully manage their disease, you will need new coping skills, a support system, education about the disease of addiction and new routines in order to stay clean and sober for life.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees a network of addiction treatment centers that include Promises rehab centers, The Ranch, The Recovery Place, and Right Step.
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