In 1967 the University of Pennsylvania conducted experiments with dogs to determine the effects of painful electric shocks on their behavior. Quite by accident it was discovered that should a dog learn that they have no control to stop the electrical distress, then they would no longer attempt to escape – even if an escape route to avoid the electrodes was presented. The dogs simply lay down and endured the painful electrical current – they gave up the hope of trying to escape at all. This phenomenon came to be known as “learned helplessness.” CBL (Cognitive Behavioral Learning®) calls it choosing the “known risk” option.
Humans of course are not dogs, but the principle of the experiment does cross over to human behavior. Individuals who feel they have little to no perceived control over their circumstances and environment can actively develop this hopeless and depressed state of mind. So what does this have to do with substance use?
Within the recovery society are millions who have learned to be helpless. They have given up hope because they have been taught both the disease of addiction theory and the theory of denial. Both of these are seen by the recovery society as hopeless conditions of the mind and body. Let’s look at denial for example. That is: you have “addiction” if you deny you have it, or you must simply accept you have it because the “addiction experts” say you do; either way, you can never escape “addiction.” Both theories are based on the premise that you are hopelessly in need of lifelong therapy and addiction treatment for your “conditions” whether you accept them or not. Based on this, you can see the parallel between the effects of the recovery society and the effects of the shock experiments reviewed above; if you convince people that there is no escape from a painful situation, some will buy into the belief and simply give up hope. They then become used to the dull insolating comfort of “known risk” and remain in this low value happiness state of mind. They will vacillate between comfort, depression, anxiety and back to low-value comfort again. We see this self-limiting phenomenon in 12-step support meetings around the globe every day.
With all the fanfare surrounding the “weak” and “diseased,” there is a secret that goes generally untold; the vast majority of people throughout the world reject hopelessness and depression and the grayness of known risk options. They break free of these doldrums and succeed regardless of their circumstances. They win in life!
So what makes someone strong while others see themselves as weak and fragile in the presence of drugs and/or alcohol? What makes someone desire a higher calling than the insulating effects of remaining tied to choices based on known risks and low fulfillment value?
In the substance use arena we hear the recovery society carve up the populace into two neat categories: those who quit on their own and those who cannot quit on their own; the strong and the weak; those who don’t require treatment, and those unfortunates who do. The recovery society misleads people by saying, “Oh, we don’t think addicts or alcoholics are weak per se, we see them as diseased. You wouldn’t call someone with cancer weak would you?” While this is condescension is a public relations statement, it holds little water in reality. The premise that someone can’t drink or drug “safely” implies certain weakness.
No one calls cancer a “cancer concept” or a “cancer disorder” or a “cancer, a disease of moral character.” Yet these are all common names the recovery society uses to explain their idea about the “addiction disease.” The cure for cancer (a disease of the body – with pathology) is met with physical agents: medicine, chemotherapy, etc., not support meetings and psychotherapy and religion. While the recovery society avoids open discussion of weakness because it would undermine their disease propaganda, they cannot accurately support their disease position in the same terms of legitimate diseases like cancer because logic forces the disease concept to fall so far short. Consequently, whether unsaid or not, the definitions of heavy use inevitably slip back into a moral and emotional weakness category by default.
So what is the truth here? Why are some folks resilient to substance use difficulties while others seem to fall prey to it? The St. Jude Program (and its Cognitive Behavioral Learning methodology) proposes a completely different and much more appropriate way of looking at human “weaknesses.” We will propose to define human weakness as a chosen behavior based on each person’s expression of their Positive Drive Principle (PDP). The PDP is simply the fact that all people always think about and move in the direction of what they believe will make them happiest at every given moment in time. And simply put, sometimes people are happier by choosing behaviors that are comfortable for them, but make them look weak to others.
There are differences in people’s choices on how to deal with life’s difficulties to be sure. For example, in Victor Frankyl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning he described how one could know when a fellow prisoner would give up their will to live and simply choose to die within the following twenty four hours. He saw this phenomenon play out dozens of times in his years at the Auschwitz concentration camp. It made him wonder, like we are here, what the differences were between those who chose life over those who chose voluntary death. Same prison camp, same food, same horrifying conditions, same routines, but opposite desires and results. Of course choosing use over choosing not to use is not on the same level as living through the absolute dehumanizing experience of a concentration camp, but Frankyl’s questions and experiences are very explicit parallel examples of what we are addressing here. Very few examples could be quite as illustrative of mankind’s differing levels of individual strength than Frankyl’s first-hand experience in a 1940’s hell called Auschwitz. So, the point is this – what are we to make of a man or woman who is “strong” in the face of a substance use issue as opposed to those who are “weak” and decide to “give in” to their “addiction” when faced with a similar options?
Let’s begin with the statement and the premise that everyone is strong. That statement does not mean that everyone will make choices we agree with, or that every choice will end in fantastic positive results – many times they don’t. It simply means people always decide what they want and what they believe at a particular moment is best for them. This is their PDP and freewill are at work, and these human attributes by their very nature are centered in natural strength. Let us provide a case study and see if our assertion above makes sense:
A Case Study: Everyone is Strong
Our example is a woman in her late-fifties who drinks a bottle of wine each night. As her day is done, she relaxes with the bottle and basically drinks until she either goes to bed or passes out. Her finances have suffered through her inactivity, but she is not in any real sense in danger of being in poverty because both she and her husband put away quite a financial nest egg and their home mortgage is paid off. Her children are grown, her marriage is on the rocks with her husband estranged and resentful of the drinking and inattention, and she is lonely, bored and depressed. Yet she continues to drink. She is the poster child for what many would judgmentally call a “weak person.” In all outward appearances she has chosen alcohol over all in her life, and it is generally viewed that only a weak individual would keep hitting the bottle when they have so much to lose.
But is she weak?
Is weakness as we readily define it valid at all? Let’s review her behavior:
Freewill – Does She Have It? Is her alcohol consumption chosen or is she truly out of control? Based on the fact that we have proven the loss of control idea as mythology in previous articles and through our decades long research, we can discount that perspective right off the bat. (If you need more information on loss of control mythology, refer to the article archives and read the Loss of Control Theory series of articles.) So she has chosen to drink in direct face of the fact that she could lose everything else valuable in her life. But this is a choice after all. So freewill has been a major factor here; she has freely chosen to value wine more than many other things in her life. But, because she chooses not to quit this habit, does that automatically make her weak? Is she less strong than others like her in similar circumstances who have shown they can quit or moderate? Were the prisoners in Auschwitz who chose voluntary quiet suicide also weaker than those who continued on in misery? The only way to answer these questions is to eliminate the judgment and opinions of others from the equation. To do so, we have to move on to her PDP.
The Positive Drive Principle (PDP) – The Foundation of All Strength
The PDP is a one-way highway. Again, the PDP is simply the fact that all people always move in the direction of what they believe will make them happiest at every given moment in time. It correctly maintains mankind’s slow march to joy and fulfillment. It corrals the mental forces of humanity towards greater satisfaction and fulfillment, but does so individually, uniquely and “in the moment.” However, it does not automatically rally our awareness of other possibly more self-expansive options (those we are required to search out and place a value upon ourselves) and it does not automatically make us aware of every consequence of our choices (although with experience we certainly can acquire that skill as well). In her case, she has become quite willing to pay the price for her buzz. Her marriage has less value than wine, and she has made this choice freely. Is that specifically an act of weakness? No. It may end up with a divorce, but it does not make her weak. She may eventually lose her relationship with her young grandchildren because her son no longer wants his new baby in the presence of a “drunk.” Does this make her a weak person? No. She values alcohol more than the relationship with her son and grandkids. She has exercised her PDP and her freewill and her autonomy, but in no way are any of these expressions a sign of weakness. Rather they are acts of controlling her environment specifically the way she wants to control it. These are the acts of strength.
If she places her actions to control her environment into something everyone in her sphere of influence agreed with – say, to quit drinking so she could spend more quality time with the grandkids – then we would say she was strong. But because the choice she has made (her expression of her PDP) is in an activity the family and society sees as “wrong,” her choice is seen as a weakness. The only time weakness become a factor in this example is when a third party decides that her choices are “wrong,” or “bad.” Upon those descriptors being placed on this woman’s choices, her decision not to acquiesce makes it look like she can’t acquiesce. The judgment made with the use of the word “can’t” removes her freewill and PDP from the occasion. But using the word “won’t” leaves them intact. For example:
“Grandma can’t stop drinking.” Weakness is implied, freewill is diminished, and her PDP is simply ignored in this statement. “Grandma won’t stop drinking.” Weakness is not implied at all (and it takes strength to drink and continue to deal with the ramifications of such a damaging habit). Freewill is expressed. Her PDP is expressed. Her autonomy is expressed. Her strength is expressed. This woman won’t see her grandchildren anymore, she won’t quit drinking, she won’t pay attention to her husband, etc. Because each of these choices are freely chosen, that makes them based on freewill and what she feels at that time is the most satisfying option available to her. Because they are freewill and PDP based they are a model of her strength. Of course the results may not be what others would view as “right,” “good,” or “honorable,” and they may even prove ultimately fatal, yet none of her choices make her a weak individual, and she could certainly argue that her choices are the best for her.
Personal Control = Strength
We have now established that she is not weak, and we recognize the distaste for her choice is the real cause for the “weakness” perspective being promoted by those around her. Let’s now look at the prisoners at Auschwitz mentioned earlier. Sometimes we see behaviors that are easily dismissed as weaknesses of character and will. In the case of the prisoners who would lay down to die rather than continue the fight; was there a lack of will in these people? Were they “weaker” than those who chose to fight on? Let’s do the same analysis as above:
• Was the desire to lay down and die freely chosen? Yes, they committed suicide.
• Was it the best option the person had at the time from their perspective? Did it fulfill their PDP? Yes. Death was better than life in the hellish conditions of the concentration camp.
• Did they express their autonomy? Yes. The guards could not stop or control the outcome of the prisoner’s decision to voluntarily die, nor could they control the prisoner’s thoughts beforehand.
This case study brings up a characteristic of strength we haven’t mentioned yet – the belief in personal control over circumstances. In the case of the prisoners, or those with bulimia for example, or those who are self-mutilators, etc., we see the act of self control is a common expression of their PDP. When a human perceives few options in their lives, and they have lived in the known-risk pool for long periods of time, the simple act of control provides a low value of happiness. In the cases mentioned above, control = happiness, as limited as that version of happiness might end up being. We see this with heavy substance users as well. They know how to drink, how to drug, they understand the consequences and benefits well, so they control their use and habits quite well. In contrast to these self-limiting, known risk options, when someone believes they have many options to choose from, we see much higher levels of self-expression and self-expansive happiness. They are no longer limited by their choice to repeat old behaviors. They break free. But, make no mistake, anyone who limits their lives with known-risk options is strong! Limited in options – but strong, consistent, and dedicated; all earmarks of strength!
Own Your Choices!
Some of our readers and their families become very uncomfortable with this discussion because they think we are promoting reckless behavior. Let us be direct here – that is nonsense! CBL’s goal is to provide the truth so people can make informed decisions, and also to respect other’s decisions and autonomy. Throughout the St. Jude Program we state that once there is an understanding of the PDP and your personal expressions of it in your daily life, you then can become accurately aware of the prices of those decisions – both positive and negative. It becomes much easier to finally own and become responsible for your choices when you know they are not made from a weak and debilitated place, but rather a motivated and freely chosen one. You are responsible for everything in your life, from the proactive choices, to those circumstances you are forced to react to. Each has a place of responsibility and consequence. How you react to unfortunate scenarios, to how you achieve your goals, to whether or not you own your choices – all of it will have consequences whether you like it or not. CBL simply makes you aware of ALL of these factors so you can hedge progress and greater fulfillment in your direction, rather than living in self-created limits accompanied by the steep price those options demand.
When all is said and done – no one is weak. Mankind simply chooses that which he wants to choose, and inevitably pays the price for those decisions. The factor in all of this that promotes progress will be how well you personally understand your expressions of your PDP, and then what you decide to do with that knowledge.