“Once I start using, I lose all control.” This “loss of control” theory has grown out of the recovery society’s beliefs and teachings about their concept of “addiction.” The reality is this: no one is ever out of control. If powerlessness actually existed with respect to drugs and alcohol then no one would ever stop; not even to enter rehab or attend a meeting. Of course, there are those rare cases of individuals with severe mental illnesses or brain damage who do exhibit legitimate lack of control over their behaviors. But this is an extremely small percentage of the population; approximately 1% according the National Institute on Mental Health. With that said, the population that has historically been interested in the Cognitive Behavioral Learning (CBL) approach we present at the St. Jude Retreats is not a part of that population, nor do we attempt to address those in that population, as their problems are beyond the scope of this learning process.
A Look at the Research
There are numerous studies that show that people have full control over their behaviors when actively getting drunk and/or high. (Some of them are discussed later on in the article.) Whether you choose to believe it or not, it is true. A problem with this reality develops when the individual chooses to believe that alcohol and drugs have power over them and that they are powerless with respect to using them. In other words, whatever they believe about the elusive “power” of alcohol and drugs and their supposed increase in power as more is consumed will become their reality. What you think and expect becomes your reality. The fundamental question is, “does the individual want to change?” If they answer yes, then the first myth that must be dispelled is that they are “out of control” of any of their personal behaviors. No one is ever out of control. But if they believe that they lose control of their choices and behavior while using alcohol or drugs, then they have taken on the identity of the “addict” or “alcoholic.”
Just as the cultures that lie outside of the recovery society instill specific behavioral expectations about substance use, and those same people act out the expected cultural behaviors; you too, may have learned from your culture a very specific way to view drinking and drugging. The recovery society has instilled the belief that there is a special class of people who lose control. By creating a strong expectation of a personal loss of control over drinking and drugging choices, the associated labels of “addict” or “alcoholic” give a license to drink or drug with reckless abandon and ensure that a feeling of being “out of control” will exist while doing it.
The feeling of powerlessness is very real; of that there is no doubt. Beliefs have the power to create very real experiences as manifested in the mind. An example of this phenomenon is a study in which people’s brains were scanned as they drank wine. The researchers gave the test subjects the same cheap wine in each case, but when researchers told the test subjects that it was expensive wine, the pleasure centers of their brains lit up more than in the subjects who were told that they were drinking cheap wine. So, the expectation of better tasting wine led the subjects to physically experience better tasting wine. (Stanford, 2008) Thus, they wouldn’t be lying when they said that the more expensive wine tasted better than the cheaper wine, even though there was no actual difference between the two. Likewise, a similar phenomenon happens when people expect to lose control over substance use; they truly experience a feeling of losing control. But just like the wine, it’s only the experience of feeling out of control; it’s not an actual loss of control. These effects are very real. Research has demonstrated that drinkers who reject the “loss of control” theory are much more likely to drink without problems after ending treatment than those who believe that “loss of control” actually exists. (Heather, 1982)
For those who believe in the loss of control or those who may be sitting on the fence, we must ask this question; if you aren’t in control of consuming each drink or hit, then who is? If you’re not the one putting the pipe or bottle to your lips, then who is? The truth is that as the drinks flow, the crack is smoked, the heroin needle plunges; you’re simply doing what you want to do, and the “addict” label, with its implication of a loss of control has facilitated a series of choices to use more substances as well as a ready-made excuse to throw caution to the wind because you believe you have “lost control” of your own behavior. You might think “What’s the use? I can’t help it,” as you continue to consume vast amounts of substances. But if you stop to think about it, this thought and belief system is a decision; a choice in and of itself!
The Alternative to Loss of Control: Owning Your Choices
There are people who engage in high levels of substance use and would be considered to have a substance use problem by most people’s standards, yet they don’t ever have any inkling that they’re out of control. Young substance users who haven’t yet been confronted by people telling them that they should change and who haven’t had any major experiences with the recovery society tend to own their choices. They don’t see themselves as having a problem. They like what they do and haven’t yet had to answer to anyone about it. They are, and feel like they are, in full control of their behavior. They own the fact that they like the feeling provided by substances.
These same people have no trouble staying sober when the situation calls for it. For example, they don’t feel the need to sneak a high where it’s clearly inappropriate and would cause conflict. The recovery society mocks these people for their self-assurance. When a concerned friend or family member decides that the substance use is a problem, they confront the individual saying something like: “you’ve got a problem with drugs, you need help to stop.” The user may retort “I can stop whenever I want to, I don’t need help.” It is at this point that the confronter may take on a mocking and sarcastic tone, belittling the user’s sense of control (this is learned by living in our recovery society). The confronter uses the fact that the substance user hasn’t already stopped doing something that the confronter disagrees with as evidence that the user is “out of control” and unable to stop. The confronter will usually tell the substance user how they are in denial of their problem or their addiction. What the confronter fails to understand is that the substance user only asserted their ability to stop, not their resolve or intent to stop, and these are two entirely different things.
If these self-confident substance users are left alone, they will usually modify their habits over time without any treatment at all. (Heyman, 2009) And furthermore, for those who are left alone, it is very rare for their stories to end tragically. However, many aren’t left alone; many of these self-confident substance users are pestered into adhering to other people’s standards of behavior. As they are threatened and subjected to coercion, guilt and shame about their use, they are faced with a dilemma: how to do what they currently believe will bring them the greatest amount of happiness (using substances), while simultaneously pleasing those people in their life that hold opposing ideals (abstinence). Since loss of control and the need for an outside force to change behavior has already been conveniently offered up by the confronters, it becomes the perfect excuse for the substance user to continue using. And for a time, because of the loss of control belief of everyone involved, natural consequences are typically lessened. The family and loved ones may actually begin the process of coddling the “sick” user by making excuses and mitigating consequences.
Now previously self-confident users portray every episode of substance use as a time of “loss of control” in order to defend their actions. Over time and with repetition, and often as the result of a cat-and-mouse game of trying to conceal any instance of substance use from a confronter, the users fully internalize the concept of loss of control. They’ve said it so many times, and they’ve made every episode of use more extreme so that it’s worth the cost of getting into trouble with their confronter. That “uncontrolled use” is now their new modus operandi and regretfully their newly acquired reality.
Don’t get us wrong, it’s not that these users always tell lies, which they then begin to believe. This is certainly true with some people, but there are others who fall into the trap of believing in loss of control out of simple error based on believing this addiction mythology. When confronted about their substance use, these substance users capitulate to the erroneous notion of “loss of control” for the purpose of appeasing their confronters. As they try to abstain to appease those around them, they eventually decide to go back to substance use simply because they still view it as a great option for achieving personal happiness. After going back to using, these substance users let shame kick in and feel like failures. What they don’t realize is that they only failed at continuing to live up to someone else’s wants and standards while they succeeded at following their own wants and standards. As the result of not being true to themselves, these users end up puzzled and reinforce the idea that they must not be able to control themselves. What they should have learned is that while conformity is a powerful motivator, the more direct pursuit of personal happiness is a much more powerful motivator. Unfortunately, they accepted the erroneous idea that their own behavior is beyond their own control.
There are others who, upon being forced into defending their substance use habit, immediately feel the shame associated with realizing that their use is purely aimed at personal happiness. They fail to understand that they, like everyone else, always seek to maximize their own personal happiness. So they immediately grasp onto the “loss of control” concept to avoid being perceived as selfish by others or themselves. For these people, not knowing why they do what they do seems to be a more comfortable option in the short term than accepting the stigma of being “selfish.”
The common denominator with all of these users who start out confident in their ability to control their use yet eventually come to see themselves as powerless and “out of control” is this: they refuse to proudly proclaim the obvious, that they use substances because they like the feeling. They run from this truth for various reasons, but it usually has to do with the troublesome practice of attempting to live by other people’s standards rather than being true to themselves.
There is another category of users who feel powerless; those who were actively and aggressively taught to feel powerless over certain personal behaviors and emotions. Some were taught the powerless concept while attending rehabilitation programs, counseling and 12-step programs. Many are now being taught the mythology of the disease and powerlessness concepts in grade school programs across the country. Others grew up with immediate family members who were heavily involved in the recovery society by being a member of a 12-step group or employed by a rehab. These children heard all their lives that substances are powerful and that any use leads to excessive “uncontrolled” use. They may have been told by their parents or by the school programs that “you have the alcoholic gene” or that “you have an alcoholic mind” and that “you have more than a 50% chance of becoming an alcoholic.” The result of growing up in “recovery-centered” families is typically a strong belief in powerlessness and the “loss of control” theory. This can bring about a variety of self-destructive behaviors.
Likewise, there are those who experience some substance related problems and honestly and naively go to those who are supposed to be the experts in solving these problems. They put their trust in these authority figures who then teach to feel powerless and to expect to be “triggered” into unwanted behaviors. These professionals teach the substance users to focus on anything and everything other than their personal choices and habits. The users are falsely taught that they are powerless, out of control, and helpless to change their habits.
Regardless of how one gets there, the state of feeling powerless and out of control is just that; a feeling, an experience based on belief, not an inherent reality. The great thing is that beliefs are learned, chosen, and developed; not innate from birth. You can challenge your beliefs, and realize that people do change their beliefs and behaviors all the time. Instead of ignoring the obvious, you can embrace and own the fact that you have chosen every instance of substance use throughout your life. And you have made these choices simply as a means to find personal happiness, which is a perfectly normal motivator. Knowing that you are moved by normal motivation, you can shed the “out of control” experience by rejecting the false belief that you are powerless. No longer feeling powerless and owning that you’ve always been pursuing personal happiness, you can freely and openly evaluate whether your style of substance use provides the greatest amount of happiness or whether there may be more effective options.