In my opinion, our society has become the worst ‘addict’ walking our streets. Its drug of choice? An old, outdated way of thinking that’s actually keeping our world stuck in the horrors of addiction.
We’ve been taught to believe that addicts are powerless.
Twelve-step programs have, for decades, been our country’s go-to solution for addiction in all of its forms. These programs teach us to implement Steps that are based on the notion that there’s a disease to blame, and that the only solution is to “work the 12 Steps or die.”
This model of thinking was founded back in 1935 by two wealthy, white Christian men – and the 12 Steps they developed at that time include many shame-based and religious overtones such as “God,” “Him,” “shortcomings” and “defects of character.” Today, as 2021 draws to a close, many people seeking a road to recovery have a problem with such language. As well, in 2021, many credible doctors and scientists feel that these Steps are not helping and could actually be harmful for many of the people who seek them out.
This is not the first time I’ve spoken out about this situation. And it is usually at this point that my views become unpopular, because the majority of our society continues to believe that addiction is a disease and that addicts are powerless.
This way of thinking is so deeply embedded into our culture, it’s become a huge part of the fabric of our society: 12-step-based treatment programs are mandated by drug courts, prescribed by doctors, recommended by therapists, and are unilaterally adopted by countless detoxes and rehab centers.
But our addiction to this mode of treatment – an addiction that we can’t seem to kick after all these years – makes us feel powerless and gives the addicts we love very little choice for recovery.
Surely, we can do better for those people who truly want to stop using.
What research has now shown, for sure, is that many addicts do recover – they regain personal power in their lives despite the fatalistic prophecies of these programs.
Happily, I am one of them.
But recovery, sobriety, and society have become partners in this dance between old ways of thinking and new ways of thinking – about an age-old problem in Vancouver, Canada, where I live and, unfortunately, all over the world.
In 1973, I was diagnosed with Crohn’ Disease. By 1987, after nearly 15 years of using the many addictive medications I’d been prescribed – including Valium, codeine, oxycontin and morphine – I became suicidally depressed in a psych ward. I hadn’t known anything about addiction at that point; it wasn’t on the radar the way it is today. But I knew I needed help and, not knowing what else to do, I did the only thing respected by society at that time – I started attending 12-Step programs every day.
Even now, 34 years later, I remember my very first meeting: A big burley biker, covered in tattoos, gold chains, and black leather, lifted me off the ground with a big bear hug and said “Keep coming back!” and “Don’t use even if your butt is falling off.” I wasn’t at all sure what he meant, but I was definitely having one of those scared straight moments – one of many that helped me stay clean in my early days of recovery.
Three years later, I was working as an addiction counsellor in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – which is the lowest income area of Canada and home to more addicts, alcoholics, the homeless, and others with severe mental health issues, per capita, in the country. Armed with society’s best information at the time, I did the “right thing” – telling every addict I came in contact with that they were powerless, and that if they didn’t follow the 12 Steps they would surely die from their “disease of addiction.”
I myself continued to go to 12-Step meetings, plenty of them – I had a lot that I wanted to heal in myself. But something wasn’t sitting quite right with me – I didn’t really feel like I was powerless. I made a choice every day to not use, and doing that was keeping me clean and sober.
As I sat in those meetings every day, I was definitely feeling confused!
And then one day my confusion cleared up. I heard an interview on 20/20 with addiction expert and Ph.D. Jeffrey Schaler – who firmly and unequivocally stated that addiction is a choice, not a disease.
For the very first time in my recovery, I felt empowered. Recovery was MY choice and I was in control!
When I walked out of the psych ward, I knew that having Crohn’s Disease was not my choice – but dealing with the pain without addictive drugs was.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” Albert Einstein – he was a pretty smart guy.
I agree with him – and right now, Vancouver and the whole world have a BIG problem – it’s being called an overdose epidemic – and we need a new way of thinking if we’re actually going to be able to change it.
Undeniably, this doesn’t match our current cultural climate of addiction theory. We’re severely stigmatizing drug users and other addicts, keeping them in a place where choice appears to be out of their hands by continuing to enable them – is it any wonder why they feel powerless?
Our societal addiction to this archaic paradigm requires swift social change – one in which we’re brave enough to take that painful look at the blame we’ve been placing on addicts and their ‘disease’. Because in doing that, we’ve kept the focus away from our own role as enablers – avoiding our collective responsibility for the very tangled mess of addiction in our world.
Because as soon as any of us say “I’m powerless” that’s exactly what we are: powerless.
Choice is at the core of self-responsibility – that very moment when a person re-identifies themselves on their own terms. I’ve witnessed that kind of power and conviction in many people during the many years I’ve chosen to be in active recovery. And I’ve worked with countless courageous families that have made the choice to stop enabling – even though that was often very hard for them in the beginning. But once family and friends truly understand that enabling actually hurts the addicts they love, they decide to take responsibility and change their behaviours. That’s when real recovery can truly happen in a family.
My client Charlie (his name has been changed) had spent years in the Downtown Eastside, shooting heroin into his arms – and sometimes his legs – several times a day. Court-ordered to see me, he wasn’t very forthcoming as a client. Although his family still gave him money and bought him clothes and food, Charlie felt powerless: he often told me that he was just waiting to die of an overdose. We talked about his very difficult life and he began to see points along his path where he’d made decisions. He realized that he had made choices and that he could, in fact, make a different, life-saving decision right then and there. His choice? To find his own path out of addiction. He didn’t go to rehab or to the 12-Step meetings at his detox, which he’d tried before. Instead, Charlie attended a free training program and found work he loved, starting out as a chef’s assistant. He is now a full-time chef and has a wife and children who adore him. Yes, addicts can make choices – and addicts can change. Charlie is not an anomaly – Charlie is the norm – making a choice.
What we need in Vancouver – and in many other places all over the world – is a commitment towards social change to a social problem that requires social intervention.
The social problem is that, as a culture, we’ve developed a codependent relationship with our addicts. Not only do we allow them to avoid personal responsibility for their choices, we even help them argue for their own perceived limitations. If addiction is seen as a progressive, incurable and chronic brain disease – that can only be kept at bay by fearful and shame-based abstinence – then all we can do is try to lessen the pain of their victimized suffering.
But – this is not the truth . . .
Today there is increasing evidence that most people with addiction issues do recover – not from treatment – but from choice.
Dr. Marc Lewis, world-renowned neurobiologist and author of Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, states that it is our choice to use or not to use any addictive behaviour.
Harvard University psychologist Gene Heyman states in his book Addiction: A Disorder of Choice that the decisions we make in our lives create all the difference – especially in the often misunderstood realm of addiction.
Vancouver researcher Bruce Alexander is known all over the world for his “Rat Park” experiments. His findings? Addiction is not a disease, and it’s actually more of a social problem than an individual problem.
For us to stand back and ignore the combination of information, education and inspiration that offers a lifeline for addicts to create a new healthy identity through choice – for us to just believe what we’ve always believed, maybe because that’s just easier for us – is downright irresponsible of us.
In 1988 with eight months clean and sober, I’m in the hospital again for yet another surgery for my Crohn’s. The doctors and nurses know I’m an addict – I’ve asked them to put that in my chart. And yet . . . I wake up from the surgery attached to an IV drip filled with morphine – that I could control with the push of a button. Oh, I loved the feeling – maybe a little too much. Apparently this didn’t go unnoticed by the nurses and my visitors – it seems I was a little chatty! But I knew without a doubt that if I kept this up, I’d become addicted to it – again.
After two days of the drip, the nurse came in and asked, “Need more morphine, dear?” I decided that very day to switch to extra-strength Tylenol and ice packs for the almost unbearable pain I was in – my choice. The pain gradually subsided – and I didn’t have another addiction on my hands. And today I am 34 years clean and sober.
Like Charlie, I am not an anomaly – I am the norm – making a choice.
The social intervention for the change we need is harder for us to adopt in our current state of cultural addiction; I know, I’ve tried. This isn’t the first time I’ve stood on a platform asking society to change their old thinking and give addicts back their power.
In 2013, The Huffington Post published my article “What If…Addiction Isn’t a Disease?” I probably don’t need to tell you – it didn’t work out well. But I’d been watching my clients take their power back and make life-changing choices every day. I was so excited – I wanted to shout their successes from the rooftops. But instead of enthusiasm for a breakthrough in addiction treatment, over 200 nasty, threatening responses overloaded my inbox. I felt like I was bullied into silence with shame, blame and judgement from the old thinkers, and it took me a while to get past that ugly experience. But I wasn’t going to let it shut me up for very long – not when I had something so important to share!
And while I watched many of my clients recovering, I also saw that others who were in traditional treatment programs were relapsing. I started taking notes – reading and researching the latest scientific breakthroughs in brain science, psychology and new thinking.
I could see, without a doubt, that recovery only happened when the person made the choice to do so. Even when people believed that their addiction was a medical disease, the only way they stopped was to make that choice to stop.
There are many roads that lead a person to addiction – and today there are several recovery options – but there seems to be only one true road out . . . to choose not to use.
Bob Burnham, renowned Vancouver speaker, talks about how to be a leader. He said “If you don’t have haters, you’re not really speaking your truth.”
I paid attention.
His words gave me the courage to once again break my silence – to get back up – to speak out for our worldwide addiction community.
Because – too many people are dying from too many overdoses.
We need to give the power of choice back to addicts and stop telling them that they’re powerless. They aren’t.
We need to change our view of addiction, replace it with new thinking and new words that are no longer demoralizing.
We need to all take personal responsibility for any enabling we’re doing, to develop a new social intervention where choice is the lens we see our future through.
We need to remember that when the person has gone so far that addiction is no longer a choice – recovery always is.