The vast majority of our readers will see evidence of controlling their use and the ability to stop when they look back at their history of substance use. They will see complex behavior, designed to maximize personal happiness.
Consider one of our guests who came through one of our St. Jude Retreats, Kevin, a well to do older married man who was his own boss, an owner and manager of several rental properties with a few partners. He made a habit of abstaining from alcohol for weeks at a time, and then taking a weeklong drinking binge. During these times he’d end up staying in one of his vacant apartments, avoiding all contact with his wife and partners throughout that time, and shirking all work responsibilities.
Kevin was convinced that he was just going to have one drink, but then he “lost control” and woke up days later in a vacant apartment once again. As he discussed this pattern more and more though, he noticed a few convenient facts about when he lost control. The only time that Kevin “lost control” of his drinking was precisely during those occasional times when his responsibilities slowed down enough. After handling a bunch of repairs, a property acquisition, or moving tenants in and out, he’d proceed to “lose control”, going on his drinking binge. Then when he had a big property auction to get to; had enough angry calls from partners and tenants; received a credible enough threat from his wife; or had someone scheduled to move into the apartment he’d been occupying – he’d miraculously regain control, clean himself up, get back to work, and go home to his wife.
How exactly does a chemically triggered biological and mental loss of control conveniently disappear right at the moment when unmet responsibilities stack up to a critical point again and again? This should clue us in to the fact that Kevin’s behavior doesn’t represent a physiological or a mental loss of control at all. It’s just chosen behavior, calculated to maximize happiness according to the beliefs and reasoning of the individual.
Consider another past guest of ours, Debbie, a middle aged professional with a high level administrative job with a college, who sits on the board of directors at an art museum, and keeps a busy social calendar. On those few nights a week when she doesn’t have any big responsibilities, she heads home, pops open a bottle of red wine with dinner, and doesn’t stop until she’s finished off two bottles and passes out on the couch. It never fails. She plans on having only a glass or two, but never sticks to the plan and is remorseful about it. Surely she loses control, and just needs to find a way to make sure she never takes the first drink.
There’s more to Debbie’s story though. When discussing her lack of control over her drinking, she naturally focuses on the drinking she regrets. What she doesn’t focus on is all the drinking she doesn’t regret. She attends charity events and openings at the museum on a regular basis, in which champagne toasts are a regular feature, and as much wine as she could drink is available. Yet she doesn’t lose control of her drinking at these events. She has the champagne and sometimes a little more wine, drinks enough to get a nice buzz, but doesn’t go beyond that. Likewise, she never seems to lose control at work-related functions, when surrounded by her coworkers. Nor does she lose control at family events such as weddings.
The only time Debbie “loses control” of her drinking is conveniently when no one is there to witness it and give her trouble about it. If Debbie truly suffers a loss of control that is biological and mental in nature and triggered by alcohol, then why doesn’t it happen every time she takes a drink?
Now consider Tommy, a young single union construction worker who makes almost $100,000 a year. He’s paid weekly, and spends the entire amount smoking crack every weekend. At work, the other guys have enough money to buy big hearty meals at lunch, while he eats a 99-cent cup of noodles. He wonders what they think, feels ashamed, and promises himself that he won’t spend his whole check on crack this weekend. Then Friday arrives, he’s driving home, and can’t help but pop over to the crack house, to do it all again. The weekend is a blur. Before he knows it, it’s early Monday morning, and he’s been smoking crack all weekend long. He composes himself, drives to the construction site, and smokes his last rock right before punching his time card.
Tommy conveniently has enough crack to smoke right up until the very moment the work week begins anew for him, and this should be evidence enough that he hasn’t really lost control, but there’s more. What Tommy fails to mention is that usually on the last weekend of every month – when it’s almost time to pay rent – he skips the crack house. He stops by the club instead, picks up a hundred bucks worth of powder cocaine, and parties a bit with his friends from the neighborhood. But he doesn’t “lose control” and spend his whole paycheck getting high. Instead, he pays his bills, buys some groceries (coincidentally including a big supply of instant noodles), and spends the weekend visiting family and taking care of various errands around home. Then the following weekend he returns to spending his whole paycheck on crack.
Again, Tommy’s story follows the patterns of Kevin’s and Debbie’s – he doesn’t always “lose control.” Taking the wider view, his behavior actually follows a clear pattern demonstrating his full ability to attend to what he considers essential to his happiness at any given point in time. Tommy does what he must do in order to keep a roof over his head, and keep a regular schedule of crack binges going. He thinks there’s some difference between crack and cocaine that accounts for his loss of control, yet both contain the same active drug and have the same effects on the brain. If the drug is responsible for triggering a binge, then the powder cocaine would cause him to spend his whole paycheck as reliably as crack cocaine seems to. But it doesn’t, because Tommy is really in control of himself every weekend, no matter which form of cocaine he uses.
But now we go to Rex. Rex is a “heroin and meth addict” that lives on the street. He spends countless hours “boosting” goods from local stores around the city he lives in, making sure he has enough stolen merchandise to exchange for a constant supply of drugs. He, like many in his predicament, is the poster child for a loss of control public ad campaign. He is almost never sober, has given up virtually everything in life to get high, and his only sober breaks in his cycle of using is when he is incarcerated. While incarcerated he thinks of little else besides getting high in jail and getting high when he gets out. Because his situation looks as if it is “bad enough” to fit all the earmarks of the loss of control theory, we need to look closely to determine if a separate will is present within his mind.
We have determined that for a mind to be overtaken requires an alternate will to be present. Is Rex “possessed by the spirit of heroin and methamphetamine”? We think the answer is self evident because the question is so patently absurd. Of course Rex is not possessed by anything except his sincere desire and will to get wasted. He is exercising a tremendous will of his own to keep the buzz going. He is a mountain of single-minded power and mission-based goals. Sure, they are not the goals of the masses, but they are his.
Simply put, Rex (and thousands like him) has a mind of his own and is doing what he wants to do. He can kick and scream how much he wants to end all of this, but you will find that in the private places where Rex gets his fix outside the judgment of others who condemn his habit, he has his moments of numb happiness. As bleak as this lifestyle may be, Rex is a committed user and until something more attractive comes along, he will implement his will as he sees fit. That is the normal expression of his Freedom Model Triad, just as Tommy, Kevin and Debbie implemented theirs in their unique autonomous ways.
Just because a theory seems to fit a situation and seems to explain it, as Rex’s behaviors seem to fit the loss of control theory, does not exempt us to question the theory itself and backtrack from that point for validity. The whole idea of a substance-will; a cunning, baffling and powerful enemy bent on our destruction, is simply not possible. So, this begs us to look at the Rex’s of the world with a much more careful eye. We know for certain that substances don’t and cannot think. We know this because we can! We can think, look, observe and know without the shadow of a doubt that things, substances, cannot take over our thoughts and freewill. And any rational person can see that heroin and meth sitting in a bag, or it being placed in the body, has no more power over our thoughts than does the sand we walk on at the beach, or the sandwich we put in our stomachs. It is only when we believe they have that power that they begin to do so. Our own beliefs guide our perceptions of how our environment and all that is in it will affect us.
In short, substances have power over our mind to the exact extent we believe they do. Until Rex went to treatment, he knew he could move past his habit and was planning to do so. It was only after his first treatment center stay that the loss of control theory and all its attendant mythology of possession held him steadfast to his newly created belief in his own powerlessness. Rex never did let go of his learned powerlessness. He held onto the “addiction professionals” message of loss of control, and he died with it intact. This is the tragedy of the destructive nature of personifying substances and providing a mythology that supports this mystical supposed power. It promotes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The scientific method combined with a simple examination of such stories shows us here that the pharmacological action of the various intoxicants is not to blame for people’s heavy use either. Moreover, highly controlled laboratory studies with replicated results show us exactly the same thing – there is no substance triggered loss of control to be found.
For information on the studies conducted on loss of control, read “Once I Start, I Can’t Stop, – Part 3”