Sep 3, 2012 | Articles

Popular wisdom holds that those of us with addictions have a problem with will power. We don’t know how to resist urges so we over-indulge in things that make us feel good.

Of course everyone wants to feel good.  And some people can gamble, have sex, eat, drink, and work to their enjoyment and satisfaction.  Then there are those of us that can’t.

Instead of feeling good, addicts sometimes do bad things like ruin marriages, or relationships with mothers, fathers, and children.  Some lose it all. I know people who began life with every advantage and became penniless and incarcerated.  It is not uncommon in recovery circles to meet people who are accomplished and working responsible jobs (sometimes very responsible jobs) with good marriages and admirable civic behaviors who spent time sleeping under the bridge when they were using.  Most who know them now would never believe it.

Another common assumption about active addicts is that there is some element of choice at play. Very bad choices would be a description of their behavior, and of course that wouldn’t be wrong but it wouldn’t be right either.  In my experience, addictions are way more powerful than intentions, self-discipline and self-imposed rules.  In my case, while my will power had a lot of inner resources and did some good things on behalf of others, it was no match for the thing that made me feel good.

I believe most of us who succumb to addictions have a couple of things pushing us in those directions. Most of us have a family history of addictions.  My family, for example, is filled with alcoholics. I hear this from most (but not all) of the people I know who have gone into the fire.

I believe that most of us also have a deep discomfort, and that our drugs of choice stake their claim on our souls by virtue of their power to release us from our demons.   And then they are in charge.  Chief Demon.

How do we get from “taking our comfort” to ruining our lives?  Where does the Chief Demon gets its power?  I think addictions get their power from our pain.  Losing control over things that make us feel good is not so much about an absence of will power.  Rather, it is the degree of the pain and the inability to find better solutions than escape.

What stands between us and finding better solutions?  My guess is pride.

Most of the people that I know with addictions, inside and outside of recovery, have a history of working hard, worrying about details, making plans, analyzing mistakes, committing to do better. In fact, it is my impression that those obsessions often rule us tyrannically.  The addictive behaviors and substances can help us forget.  And then the obsessions return with new fuel:  guilt about our misbehavior.

So we try harder. We amp up the control techniques. We recommit. We try different combinations of white wine and vodka, rationalizations, a different race track, or we move.  It’s the job, the wife, the children, the sheriff who is to blame and if they would get right, so would we.

I know and listen to a lot of people who are in recovery. I always listen carefully when they tell me about how they got sober or clean or stopped using. There seem to be a couple of what might be essential elements: 1) got sick and tired of being sick and tired, 2) asked for help, 3) surrendered to the source of help.

There is a pivotal moment in my life. I was in a treatment program in Pinehurst, and the therapist said to me, “it’s OK Michael. I’m in charge now and I’ll tell you what to do. Just follow these steps and you will find a peace that you don’t now know and it will change your life”. And I did, for the first time in my life.

Surrender.  The absolutely last place I thought to look. This was contrary to my upbringing, ethics, nature and self-esteem. It was contrary in the extreme to my pride. I mean contrary in the extreme.

I’ve been following this counselor’s advice now for almost 18 years.  18 years in 32 days to be precise.  I still want to take control, my inner voices still berate me, I rehash old slights and anticipate new ones.  I obsess on my mistakes, harshly judge myself and others, especially those I love and call my own.  But underneath it all lays a belief that it is better if I am not in control.  It is better if I turn it over.  As Reg said last week, Higher Power is in charge and all is well. Peace.


To Your Health,

Dr. Sharp