Over the last 26 years of conducting research with substance users, you hear certain statements that have a common loss of control theme. For example, when speaking to a remorseful crack user after a three day expensive run, we hear the pleas of powerlessness. It goes like this: “I am driving home after I get my paycheck with no thoughts whatsoever about getting high. And then, just like that I get off the exit and find myself at the crack house and wonder how it happened. I feel powerless and totally out of control!” Let’s pull this statement apart to get to the root of what is really going on here.
“I can’t remember,” is no excuse for Powerlessness
Users think they have no control over their use based on their lack of adequate recollection of the events leading up to and including their use of substances. They say they went from no thought of getting high, to suddenly being at a crack house with a crack stem in their mouth. They claim that all the behaviors of driving to the crack house, finding parking, going into the crack house, negotiating and buying the crack, finding their spot and lighting up were accomplished with no thought whatsoever – that they were driven to use by the “addictive power” of the drug; their brains hijacked by the craving to use. Tragically and in many cases, this unfortunate set of beliefs repeat themselves over and over with devastating effects. This same scene and description is played out by thousands everyday in today’s recovery society culture. Whether it is the twenty-year-old popping pills, the forty-year-old at the bar, the fifty-five-year-old mother of three at home drinking wine, or the executive who is secretly doing heroin, the descriptions of powerlessness are amazingly similar.
First, let us state the obvious. Users omit details when recollecting their substance use stories for self-serving reasons; in short they are embarrassed. If they were to have the courage to describe a detailed account of their thought processes surrounding their use, they would then have to accept responsibility for their choices and the consequences of them. In most cases, selective memory serves to skirt judgment and the need to fix damage done by the chaos that naturally surrounds their drug using escapades. But what if they really feel powerless; what if they feel as if they are being driven to use by an addictive power that overwhelms their will. What explains these feelings?
Let us start our analysis of the problem with facts. We know that nothing can be done without thinking about doing it first. That being an inescapable truth let’s revisit our crack user above and begin a logic train to find out if he/she is truly driven mad by crack, or if their cognition (their thoughts and desires) had something to do with their trips to get crack.
First, there was a conscious thought, no matter how small, no matter how fleeting, no matter how much this user wants to deny or ignore it, which amounted to “I want to get high. I want to smoke crack.” In the case given above, this thought was immediately followed by the next obvious choice needed to carry out the satisfaction of that want; the choice to turn the car onto the off-ramp and to continue on to the crack dealer’s house. We know this, because their behavior proves it.
Once the decision was made to go to the crack house, habit takes over from that point forward, assuming of course that the travel path to the crack dealer is well-known. If the path to the crack house was not routine, then the story would be quite different. Actively searching for a new drug house demands much more careful thought, awareness and reasoning than driving to a drug house that they may have visited many times prior. So, if the person had to search out a new house to score, they most certainly will have awareness and memories of this event.
In our case described above however, the user had a practiced route for getting to the same crack house they routinely visited on many occasions before. Based on these repeated trips little thought was given to the whole process of going there and getting high. The entire process seemed automatic. In actuality the crack run was simply habitual, and routines like this can be acted upon with very little memory, awareness or effort. You could say that the user was quite literally living in the moment.
Routines: Models of Efficiency
Any routine that has been well established can be carried out habitually, with little conscious effort or awareness. This is the central earmark of a self-created habit. When a thought is repeatedly recorded in long-term memory, it is then able to be recalled quite easily and efficiently as a result of self-directed neuroplasticity. To understand habitually performed routines more clearly, one might think about driving on a long freeway for hours, and then realizing you have no memory of the last twenty miles. You were driving the car habitually, because you may have driven on freeways for years and are very practiced at it. No matter how hard you try, no memories of that portion of the trip will ever be able to be recalled. This is very common with people who take the same route to work each day, driving the same highways, at the same time each day, etc. Their mind accesses the information of past trips in their long term memory banks and does so effortlessly and there is no need to re-record the event each day. When a habit is this well-entrenched, such as knowing the route to a certain drug dealer’s doorstep, very little conscious processing is needed to get there. Therefore, the route to the crack house seems “automatic.” So in that respect, the idea that going to the crack house seems “automatic” is, in fact, probably an accurate description of how the user feels when recounting the event. It’s all about cognitive efficiency.
Another aspect that is omitted from these conversations of perceived powerlessness is the responsibility for making the decision to smoke crack in the first place. This point cannot be overstated. Regardless of how quickly the initiating thought to go to the drug dealer’s house occurs, it is still a conscious thought. Any initiating thought is a conscious thought, (it is pulled into your conscious awareness) and we are absolutely responsible for the results of these initiating ideas. We are of course also absolutely responsible for our other more habitual thoughts and behaviors that come after the initiating thought (those not in the direct light of our active awareness at the time) – because we created them just the same. So there are no habits that we are not responsible for, regardless of how much of them we actually recall later on.
After discussing these situations with thousands of users over the last 26 years, no one ever stated, “I cannot remember deciding to get the crack.” However, many have stated that from that point forward, once they made the decision to get high, “it seemed out of my control. I don’t remember anything after that. Two days later, I was broke and seriously remorseful.”
The initial thought to get high (or drink alcohol, etc.) can always be recalled. This is simply because thoughts that create change in our mental trajectory at the time, in this case the change from going straight home from work to going to the crack house, are automatically recorded in long-term memory and can be recalled. These are conscious, deliberate decisions, and therefore we are responsible for the outcomes. While the subsequent habitual thoughts and actions (like the rest of the route to the crack house, etc.) are sometimes not being recorded into long-term memory, it does not mean that the individual does not have control over their thoughts and actions at the time. It just means the route, purchase, etc. have become so habitual that the mind sees no reason to force the brain to record the act over and over again. All habitual routines like this may be difficult to remember later on. But, remembering and/or not remembering an event or routine do not make said event or routine any less of this individual’s responsibility. Recollection is not a required criterion of the responsibility for our choices and actions. Nor is the lack of remembering accurately a drinking/drugging binge an excuse for “powerlessness.” For example, no matter how sincere you might be explaining to an officer that you were driving habitually on your long freeway trip and thus you are not responsible for your excessive speed, the officer is still going to write you the ticket for your actions. You are responsible!
No one is totally oblivious of their actions, no matter how habitual their daily routines may be. If you find it important to become more conscious of your actions while immersed in a routine, you can and will do so. This proves that you are never completely unplugged from time, space and reality. We are NEVER truly on full autopilot while immersed in our routines. For example, if you were the person described above driving habitually to work on the freeway, and suddenly a deer jumped in front of your car, you will immediately be thrown out of the routine and into a more conscious series of events that will be hard coded into your long-term memory banks. In this case, you react, swerve your car, and the scary moment will be able to be recalled for your entire lifetime thereafter. Because the near crash was so out of the ordinary to your habitual pattern, it is a memory that can, and will always be remembered. Again, these types of scenarios prove that even when in a state of routine, our cognitive forces are still not only available, but they also remain “on” at all times. If our cognition was truly shut off completely, we could not even drive down the road, much less react when the deer jumped out. We are never truly on auto pilot as the crack user conveniently exclaims.
So you see, we are all responsible for creating and living out our routines. When an individual says, “I got drunk without a single thought about the consequences. It’s as if they didn’t ever come into my mind! The misery of a week ago didn’t even occur to me! I must be crazy! Now I have my third DWI.” Claiming a lack of accurate recollection as a criterion for one’s loss of control is simply a way to side step our responsibility in situations we don’t like being responsible for.
Most people don’t have these experiences of supposed mindless “uncontrolled” substance use until they’ve been taught to see their behavior through this inaccurate concept we call powerlessness (or loss of control). And, even though powerlessness is taught by the recovery society and broadly accepted, you can choose not to believe in it or feel shame or guilt about substance use. You can choose to take responsibility for your choices and own the fact that you are freely choosing to pursue the sliver of the known-risk happiness provided by substances, but be willing to accept and pay the consequences as well.
The creation of a powerlessness script is a chosen emotional process. In our example of the crack user above, their routine begins immediately after the car turns off the highway towards the crack house, and this routine is amplified by the belief in loss of control. Once the routine of the crack run is initiated, the following steps occur that again make powerlessness seem convincing.
Why Substance Users Choose to be Reckless
The individual omitted that they made the decision to throw caution to the wind and use crack (or any other substance) without limits (recklessly). This is a very important point. You know that each crack use (or any habitual behavior) takes place under some sort of self-defined and culturally influenced limits. If the choice or resulting behavior is one you know that others will not agree with, and your limits are incompatible with theirs, then you make the choice to have no limits – to be reckless. People decide to be reckless and to feel out of control so their behavior is no longer seen to be their fault, i.e. “It just happened!” or “Screw it, might as well get good and drunk now!” This decision is just that; one more choice to justify the behavior you like. Once the choice is made to relinquish responsibility, people decide based on past experience, how far they will take the temporary escape from responsible living. These are all freely chosen self-limits you place on your behaviors. In the case of crack and the more expensive drugs, the decision to reduce or stop usage is usually based on economics and family dynamics. When the money runs out and the family relationships begin to break apart, substance use tends to slow down or stop. In the case of drinking (because it is legal and cheaper) the period of use may be longer in duration than that of other drugs.
A crack run or a drinking binge or any behavior similar in nature to these examples is filled with cognitive choices, thoughts, and carefully constructed planning to lessen the negative effects on your lifestyle obligations, while also enjoying the effects of the drugs themselves. The more repetitious these activities become, the more efficient people become. It’s not any different than driving a car or riding a bike.
When you learn to drive a car much thought and effort go into the learning process. When drinking and drugging for the first few times this is true as well. As you get better at driving, you have less and less conscious decision-making associated with the activity. However, no one would claim, “I don’t know how I got in the car, or how it drove me here. My God, the car just simply drove itself with me as a passenger.” If you made this claim, people around you would question your sanity and tell you that you’re being ridiculous. The only reason people get away with such statements made about their substance use is because those who do not use substances in this manner are appalled by it and struggle to understand why someone would give up so much to continue using. And when users say, “I don’t know how I got into this mess again!” those around them accept that at face value as it is easier than seeing it for what it actually is, a series of repeated, practiced choices that the user decided to make.
So in the final analysis, any binge or substance use habit is based on practice, well thought out self-limits, consciously initiated thought, and habitual routines that the recovery society mislabels as “powerlessness.” In the end, all people create their own reality, and no one is ever powerless over substance use.
Foundations of Lasting Change
Our on-site research has shown, ultimately, that what seems to have predicted success for our guests at our residential retreats (St. Jude Retreats) has been one common factor; our successful former guests fully embraced the message of personal responsibility. They began to see themselves as personally capable of change and responsible for their future, and they set about maximizing their pursuit for personal happiness. Their positive changes had nothing to do with ongoing support group meetings, or being powerless, or believing that they needed to be shielded from the natural stressors that are a part of life. Rather, it was based on a cognitive shift toward owning their choice to use substances as a simple pursuit of gratification based happiness, then embracing their own immense power of choice and finally, embracing the desire for other avenues of gratification besides substances. Understanding the truth about substances and shedding the idea that loss of control is possible brings all of these sides of substance use back into a realm of self-directed facts. These were and continue to be the common denominators of success, and remain the underpinnings of the learning process covered throughout this article (as well as the St. Jude Program).