A reader asked me about the disease devotees:
when you challenge these peoples thoughts, they get so mean and hateful. I just wonder if they are scared, because they have bought into the medical model of addiction, It isnt your fault you are sick, etc. and then people like us challenge that, do you think thats why so many angry hurtful comments come about?
The short answer is yes, they are scared. However, it’s important to know why. I think that most (not all) people who inhabit the recovery culture build their personal change on a foundation of fear – and they work hard to keep that fear alive. Let me explain.
We all know the rock bottom stories, and not everyone goes through such drama, but there is a principle there. If people seek out help with their substance use habits, they’ve usually had some bad things happen that are scaring them into making a change. They are running away from some nasty consequences. Of course, the other way of looking at this is that they’re seeking to improve their lives – that they are running towards better life results. It’s all a matter of framing. It seems like those who successfully stop struggling make an important transition from the initial fear frame to a positive frame. Unfortunately, the popular recovery culture promotes the fear frame, and many get stuck in it for life.
The recovery culture is unfortunately filled with people who view a reduction in substance use as deprivation. Many of them are committed to the idea that substances cure all of their emotional problems and offer the best possible feeling in life – and they never question this. For example, Russell Brand, who at 10 years abstinent from substances writes:
The last time I thought about taking heroin was yesterday. I had received “an inconvenient truth” from a beautiful woman… she told me she was pregnant and it wasn’t mine.
… I am becoming possessed. The part of me that experienced the negative data, the self, is becoming overwhelmed, I can no longer see where I end and the pain begins. So now I have a choice.
I cannot accurately convey to you the efficiency of heroin in neutralising pain. It transforms a tight, white fist into a gentle, brown wave. From my first inhalation 15 years ago, it fumigated my private hell and lay me down in its hazy pastures and a bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb.
Do you see it? He romanticizes heroin as the thing that will cure his emotional pain, and thus he still craves it after 10 years of devotion to the steps.
With this outlook, for Brand and the masses in the recovery culture, it is a punishment, loss, or deprivation to reduce or quit substance use. They remain highly motivated to use substances, yet they fight this motivation. And what do they fight it with? The thing that originally seemed to motivate them to stop: fear of negative consequences.
They could have simply looked for better things to move on to, but because they’ve been fed and believe the addiction mythology, they enter into a lifelong fight with the boogieman of addiction – a fight fueled by fear. As Brand says of his 10 years of abstinence “The price of this is constant vigilance”.
The addiction mythology and the “support” groups serve as their ongoing source of fear needed to fight their motivation to use. They MUST believe in “loss of control” because it scares them straight. They MUST believe that moderation is impossible, because this scares them straight. They MUST believe that everyone who stops attending meetings has completely fallen apart, because that keeps them in the meetings which keeps them scared, which keeps them straight. They must hear of the tragedy that happens to “active addicts and alcoholics”, to keep them scared straight. Aaron Sorkin’s recollection of an exchange with Philip Seymour Hoffman serves as a good example of this attitude:
On breaks during rehearsals, we would sometimes slip outside our soundstage on the Paramount lot and get to swapping stories. It’s not unusual to have these mini-AA meetings—people like us are the only ones to whom tales of insanity don’t sound insane. “Yeah, I used to do that.” I told him I felt lucky because I’m squeamish and can’t handle needles. He told me to stay squeamish. And he said this: “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.” He meant that our deaths would make news and maybe scare someone clean.
The fear is the thing they focus on constantly, and through all of this, their assessment of substances as the only thing that can make them comfortable in their own skin, et cetera – stays completely intact. Thus their high motivation to use drugs and alcohol (aka “overwhelming cravings to use” or “powerful urges”) stays completely intact.
With the motivation to use intact, then the fear must stay intact too. As we saw above, Sorkin and Hoffman believe[d] that fear is the savior of addicts. The fear is what’s saving them. Therefore anything that threatens to dismantle their fear, is perceived as a threat to their life. So they take it extremely seriously whenever anyone comes anywhere near challenging their mythology.
They’ve come up with many ways to deal with and insulate themselves from these threats. For one example, consider the “real alcoholic” argument. They dismiss any evidence of people changing their substance use habits outside of the 12-steps as evidence that those people were never really alcoholic to begin with. They must grasp onto the belief that they are in a different class, so they can grasp onto fear, and shelter themselves from triggers – people, places, and things – and “cunning, baffling, powerful” substances – and hide in the recovery subculture.
Again – this isn’t everyone in the recovery culture, but I think it’s a great majority of people who are active in the recovery culture (by which I mean support meetings – even many of the alternatives – and ongoing treatment/counseling).
So, when you challenge their mythology you are threatening their life (from their perspective). Just look at the way they betray it in their comments here and anywhere else a choice perspective of addiction is promoted. They vehemently assert that addiction is a disease without even attempting to demonstrate it logically, they use all manner of foul language and ad hominem to shout down other opinions, and then they justify their irrationality by claiming that the other addicts reading just need to know it’s a disease or they’ll die. So, they don’t really debate the point, they just assert that the belief in the disease keeps alcoholics alive, because without it they’d think it was safe for them to have a drink. That is to say, they wouldn’t be full of fear.
[Having a single drink is basically pretty safe btw, notwithstanding pre-existing medical conditions. Once you get into the realm of several drinks in a short span of time, that’s not safe. Loss of control doesn’t exist – anyone can moderate, if that is what they truly want, because loss of control does not exist.]
Little do they know, they could move on without the mythology, end the constant inner struggle, and be much happier in their lives. They could take the meaning and power away from substances by understanding that drugs and alcohol:
- Are NOT cunning, baffling, and powerful
- Do not “medicate” their emotional/psychological problems or provide comfort
- Do not provide the courage and confidence they need, et cetera
And instead, they could understand that substances simply provide a cheap thrill, which is easily rivaled by so many other life options. With this understanding, the motivation to use diminishes greatly (i.e., becomes “manageable”) or completely goes away, and thus the need to battle it with fear goes away too. The fear and self-doubt of the recovery culture and addict mindset is replaced by self-confidence and a direct pursuit of greater happiness (which can mean abstinence or some form of moderate substance use). A fear frame can be replaced with positive pursuit of greater happiness frame. Instead of resisting urges and craves, avoiding triggers, getting ongoing support, etc – you are simply choosing to do what makes you happier than that old troublesome pattern of substance use that is now in the past because you know it won’t offer you what you want anymore.
For what it’s worth, I would never seek out a conversation with a committed recovery culture enthusiast who is happy with their system, and try to convince them that their beliefs are wrong. However, there are too many people out there who know that these beliefs are mucking up their attempts to change – and they know that there must be something better. They look for answers, and sometimes they find me. And those are the people with whom I have the talk about changing the angle of approach and challenging the tenets of the recovery culture.