Who would choose addiction? No one would. People don’t make bad choices. They always act completely rationally.
If you believe this, then you probably believe the disease theory – which rests on the premise that if a behavior is self-destructive, then it must be involuntary. Gene Heyman astutely identifies this premise in his groundbreaking book Addiction: A Disorder Of Choice. It’s a point so obvious, that most of us battling the disease theory never even consider it. Nevertheless, it stares us straight in the face at every turn. We say that addiction is a choice, and someone inevitably disagrees and expresses righteous indignation saying “my father’s an alcoholic, it broke up his marriage, he lost his job, and went to jail for a year for drunk driving – why would anyone choose that?”. This is of course emotionally charged, stifles debate, and we usually redirect our argument, without directly questioning the challenger’s premise. Well, inspired by Heyman’s point, I’m here today to challenge the notion that your loved one is infallible. I’m here today to say that your parent, child, sibling, or spouse willingly chose to be a jerk.
That’s right, people are capable of making bad decisions, and they do it all the time. People choose to eat foods which will make them fat. They choose to spend time watching tv rather than studying for school. They choose to ignore their “check engine” light until their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. They choose to worry about their social life more than their career, and end up poor. They choose to….you get the picture (I hope). My point is that there probably aren’t that many people who say “I want to be 50 years old with no savings, and struggle to pay the rent every month” – but when they choose to spend all of their free time on recreational activities, spend their money like there’s no tomorrow, and move from place to place without ever building a reputation and solid network of professional contacts – then by default, they’ve chosen to be penniless at 50. Likewise, I don’t directly choose to be a slob. I choose to eat and leave my dishes in the sink after each meal, to be cleaned at a later time. I choose to avoid the small amount of work now, in favor of other activities, such as watching tv or checking email. But before I know it, I end up with a sink-full of dirty smelly dishes – a slobbish state I have indirectly chosen, but chosen nonetheless.
So, I choose to be a slob. There was a time when I chose to be a substance abuser/addict. What both of these problems have in common is that they’re built upon a series of smaller choices which have the character of being shortsighted. When I leave the dishes in the sink, or the socks all over the floor, I’m not thinking about them accumulating into a mess, I’m not focused on the long-term consequences of my choices – I’m thinking about my enjoyment of the immediate moment. Likewise, I didn’t think “I want to be a miserable drug addict, with no life outside of chasing a high” – but that’s what I became. I got to that point by thinking only of the immediate pleasures of drug use, I avoided focusing on more important things, hell, I avoided even figuring out what could be more important and valuable to me than a high. In that way, I chose to be the miserable, loser, directionless, asshole-y drug addict I eventually became.
Your loved one, the one you think so much of, the one you care so much about – is capable of choosing to be a jerk. It’s not the end of the world, if they try to weigh other options, and get honest about what they’re choosing for themselves, then they can choose to stop being a jerk. But if we make excuses for their behavior, and pretend that they can’t be responsible for the state of their own life, then we aren’t giving them a fair chance at succeeding.
Exercise: Pay attention to yourself and others throughout the next week, notice where people make choices that may be immediately gratifying, but result in later compounded problems. Try to see it in many different settings. Could all of these behaviors be a disease? Do you believe that all irrational/self-destructive behavior is involuntary?