Drug addicts: Are they weak-willed? Or really lacking in power to change?
I can think of times in my life when I was super strong-willed to get what I wanted, and through hard work, I was a high achiever in school. I never gave up on what I wanted. In older life I lost eleven stone in weight through sheer will and determination. I knew I wasn’t a weak-willed person.
When it came to addiction however, it just seemed I had no will power – it just didn’t come into the equation. I had tried changing everything I could: holidays, detoxes, location, friendships, life circumstances, girlfriends, reading books – I had tried pretty much everything, but I just could not stay stopped.
Every now and again I would come up with a new idea, but they never amounted to much. It got to the point where I sunk into my addiction more, feeling completely disheartened and succumbing to the fact I would just be a using addict forever.
I stopped speaking to “normal” people because they just didn’t get it. At times when I was caught vulnerable, and someone seemed safe to talk to, I’d come up with some reason why I was acting in that way. But as people didn’t seem to know what to do, they’d just say something like: “You’ve got no will power”, “You need to get a job, hobby, life”, “If I was in your shoes… (insert crazy idea here)”, “Get a girlfriend that will settle you down”. The list went on…
Little did I know that it would go on like that to bitter ends, jails and institutions. I came close to death, but got lucky. People eventually gave up on me due to their inability to understand why I didn’t “just stop”.
Is Addiction a Disease? Does it Really Matter?
The National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIH) says the following:
“Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug–seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.” (https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction)
There are various arguments for and against the disease concept, but in my own circle of recovery and my own practice, I prefer to focus on something useful: the solution. After all, we all love a good debate don’t we? Conspiracy theories and whether addiction is a disease or not. Think about it, what’s going to change either way?
When I finally reached my limits and was just sick and tired, I was introduced to mutual aid. There weren’t many meetings available at the time, and little did I know, it would be life-changing for me. Twenty-two years later, I’d gone from a chronic addict who could not go a day clean, to having not used drugs or alcohol for over twenty-two years. That’s a big statement in itself.
So what changed?
Did I all of a sudden get a second wind of extra will-power? I don’t think so. No, I got to the point where I was broken, desperate, isolated, lonely, with nobody left in my life. I had to surrender, as there was just nothing else that I could try.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines disease as ‘a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury’. As a psychotherapist today, I am often looking at the word ‘disordered’ and what it truly means to live your life on a disordered level. Looking back at my past, there was very little, if any, accessible rational thinking that I had the power to act on. I would have all sorts of great ideas about stopping using drugs, but the next morning when I had none, there was only one thing on my mind.
As per the NIH description of addiction, and despite the harmful consequences, I continued to be destructive and continued using drugs. I would argue that I was less destructive while on drugs than off them; when I didn’t have any, then my behavior was off the wall.
Despite going through all that in younger life, I have lived most of my adult life drug and alcohol free; and have been a responsible and happy member of society. I channel my energy into helping others and into being productive. I believe that in life, there is often far too much focus on the problem and not enough on the solution.
Is addiction a disease? Who really cares? Just do whatever works for you and be happy.
Dip. Psych TA – MBACP
Psychotherapist – Transactional analysis
22+ years of addiction recovery