The illusion of control in addiction
Drugs and alcohol can be fun to consume. If they weren’t, then a lot less people would find themselves struggling with addiction. How does recreational use of drugs or alcohol transition to full-blown addiction?
Addiction means believing you can control your use despite all the evidence that you cannot.
What does the illusion of control over addictive behavior look like?
A man comes home stumbling drunk after going to the bars every Thursday night. He gets angry with his wife when she asks him to keep quiet so as not to wake the kids. He grows irritated and growls at her that she should “shut up and mind her own business”. The next morning, he apologizes profusely to her and promises to tone down his drinking.
The scenario above is doomed to be repeated. This man is employing more control as the solution. “I will tone down my drinking” assumes that he has the capacity to do so. Control over one’s intake is impossible when addiction has set in. A more true statement might be:
“No matter how hard I try to keep my drinking under control, I can’t. I know that if I have a drink it will lead to a binge and I will hurt myself and my family. Please help me.”
This statement acknowledges the lack of control this man really has over his drinking.
So, what does it take for someone to admit how little control they really have?
In severe addiction, there’s a deep motivation to keep believing that the person is in control. Getting and using their drug of choice becomes life’s organizing principle. It’s quite a sleight of hand. The person must be able to believe that he can choose to stop “if I really wanted to” while maniacally pursuing the feeling of intoxication.
In order to break through this fog of denial, a particularly bad set of consequences usually has to occur. The recovery community often refers to this as “hitting bottom”. When enough bad consequences pile up the person may begin to question whether they actually are in control. This is the moment when psychotherapy is highly recommended. Therapy helps a person feel supported in letting go of their illusion of control and helping them into the process of recovery.
What’s so important about acknowledging one’s lack of control?
I have worked in a treatment setting for the treatment of addictions. It was fundamentally different to work with clients who know that they cannot control their use versus someone who deep-down still believes they have control. When someone accepts their powerlessness over the drug or alcohol, there’s a moment of surrender that is both terrifying and liberating. It’s scary to acknowledge that one is helpless in the face of the drug or alcohol. It’s liberating because the person becomes extremely motivated to find resources outside themselves to start and sustain their recovery as a sober person. It’s usually at these moments, that someone becomes open to attending groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Their participation is not begrudging but grateful because they realize what a challenge it will be to construct their identity around a new central belief: “I cannot control my use of _______, and I need support from others to help me remain abstinent”.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Counselor who is trained in psychotherapy for addiction. The ideas in this blog post are based on Stephanie Brown‘s, developmental theory of addiction and treatment. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, psychotherapy can be helpful. Contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if we might be the right fit.