I was watching a video about a 20 year old boy (an oxycontin user) in a drug court program in Nevada the other day, and he expressed a very important insight. Specifically, he said:

I need to start doing things to better, not today, but to better tomorrow. And I think that’s what it all comes down to, an addict doesn’t think that way, an addict is like “right now I’m feeling this way, and that I know what I can do to feel better right now.”

It makes perfect sense. The addict is shortsighted, they’re acting only for that immediate gratification, ignoring the potential long term happiness they’re constantly trading for that cheap thrill (for a brief summary of this view, check out this reviewers take on Gene Heyman’s Addiction). I was impressed with what he said. Then I thought about how he would be treated in the recovery culture for uttering such a thought. I’ve seen it all too often. They’ll tell him to “take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in yer mouth”, a popular phrase said to young people, “newcomers”, and anyone who doesn’t strictly stick to the dogma at 12 step meetings. They’ll tell him “you can never know what’ll happen tomorrow, so just take it one day at a time.” They’ll dismiss his ideas, and belittle him. They’ll tell him he’s arrogant, and that it’s just like an addict to think they’ve got it all figured out. All of their standard retorts will send the message that he shouldn’t be thinking, that he’s incapable of thinking clearly, and that it doesn’t matter anyways because he’s got an incurable disease that can only be temporarily helped with a miracle – that his thoughts don’t matter, and never even figured into the equation. It made me sad.

Then I thought about what I would do if he were one of my addiction coaching clients. I would capitalize on that thought. I’d praise him for his brilliance, and encourage him to keep thinking. I’d ask him what he thinks would help him to build a better tomorrow. I’d ask him to be very specific, and set some goals for the better tomorrow that would make him happy, then I’d get him to agree to some concrete actionable steps to start working on now, and have him set a deadline for those first steps. In short, I’d get him to start focusing on a better tomorrow and working towards it, so that he could start feeling success, and feel that it’s an attainable reality. And the best part is, he would be coming up with all of this himself, so he would be far more likely to start acting on it than if it were just a plan someone else prescribed for him. This would help him to build momentum, and hopefully he would start building a new pattern of thinking and behavior that is more successful and rewarding than substance abuse, and he would truly know it through experience, and he would grow up and move on with his life. I also thought about my time at the St Jude Retreat House – if I were his instructor there, it would basically be the same: “Oh, you think you need to do things to better yourself and have a better tomorrow? Great, our program is based on that. In fact, we’ll spend a third of our class time working on your personal goals! By the way, you’re not an addict, you’re a person with a substance use problem, you’re not fundamentally different than the average human being, you can change your thinking, you can stop thinking about only today. We’ll give you some exercises you can do to start changing the way you think.”

Unfortunately, he probably won’t be my client, or attend the SJRH. His thoughts will be discouraged, and he’ll probably struggle for a long time before he’s finally “had enough”, and he’ll quit in about 5 years after wasting much of the most important time and opportunities in his life. In the meantime, he’ll probably continue to build a lengthy criminal record, and waste a lot of his family’s money on treatment programs that don’t work. He will have every ounce of individuality, every iota of independent thinking, beaten out of him by the recovery culture, and he may end up a shell of a man, always waiting for the inevitable relapse, living his life in fear, and unable to think for himself. The way I see it, that’s a tragedy, and it’s a tragedy that unnecessarily happens, countless times to countless victims every day.

Anyways, all of this got me thinking about what treatment programs and the recovery culture do to people every day. It robs them of their independence of mind, their individuality, it makes them a slave to the minds of others. By stamping out their ability to think, to have an independently functioning mind, it destroys their ability to make rational and productive choices. The death of the individual spirit that happens in “recovery” is truly the death of choice. It’s no wonder that these people “relapse” as soon as some fellow “recovering addict” presents them with an opportunity to get high or drunk. At that point, they’ve been encouraged to sacrifice their own judgment for feelings, whims, and most importantly – the thoughts, judgments, and suggestions of others. They’ve been taught only to emulate their peers, and when the peer is getting high, it only makes sense that they would get high too. Instead of being taught to believe that they can achieve greatness, and grow, and mature, they’ve been taught to embrace “humility” – to distrust their own judgment and refuse to exercise it, to reject their own will, and to reject their own thinking. You end up with a person who has no semblance of independence at all, because they’ve disavowed it at the most basic level – at the level of thought.

So this is a theme I’ll be exploring more in future posts, I think that true individuality, meaning the practice of thinking for oneself , is an extremely important issue for people with substance use problems. Too much is done in the recovery culture to squash and stunt this kind of thinking, and more needs to be done to foster it -to create better functioning autonomous individuals who aren’t dependent on the judgment of others in order to make their own choices.  Yes, a substance abuser is thinking and behaving irrationally, but the solution to this is not to stifle thinking, the solution is to encourage and grow it, to nurture it in a positive direction.

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