What is it that really motivates the struggling addict or alcoholic? What is it that they truly want, and how does this affect their actions, including what they are willing to do in order to try to change their lives? Let’s take a closer look at the mind of the struggling alcoholic.
The fantasy of infinite supply
In the beginning it is pretty simple. The addict or alcoholic loves their drug of choice and obviously they need MORE of it. More, more, more. They are limited by the amount of money they can spend on their drug of choice or by the amount of free time that they have in which to get drunk or high. In other words, if they have to work for forty hours per week in order to pay for their life and for their addiction, then this is cutting into the time in which they could be using their drug of choice instead.
Ultimately they arrange a fantasy in their mind in which the world is perfect–they don’t have to worry about a thing, and they have an infinite supply of their drug of choice. This is also represented by having an infinite supply of money (or the very popular, “if I only had a million dollars”).
The addict really believes that if they had an infinite supply of money and time, then they would be truly happy because then they could use their drug of choice non-stop and they would not be limited by things like money, jobs, etc.
This of course is a delusional fantasy, because there is no such thing as “unlimited happiness based on continuous drug or alcohol use.” This is a fantasy state that every drug addict and alcoholic believes in, but if they would stop and think about it they would realize that it is a lie.
If you are clean and sober and then you suddenly ingest drugs or alcohol, your mood will be altered drastically and this will make the addict deliriously happy for a while. But in order to keep that elevated mood going they will have to medicate again when they come down eventually. And here is the kicker–eventually they will be self medicating all the time, every waking moment, and at that point the “elevated mood” becomes the new normal. It has become the same old state of mood, the new normal, and it no longer feels like it is deliriously happy any more. Because it is all the time!
The only way that you can use drugs and alcohol to become “deliriously happy” is if you contrast that elevated mood with the pain, boredom, frustration, and misery of being without any drugs at all in your system. This is the only way to get that huge boost that you are seeking from your drug of choice–if you contrast it with the state of withdrawal, or even just with the state of “not being medicated at all.”
So you cannot have it all. Even if you had the million dollars, what would this get you? So what if you had an unlimited pile of your drug of choice? So what if you had no personal responsibilities at all in life and unlimited money? This will not make you happy. It will not create the “permanent happiness” that we believe it could create.
If you had an infinite supply of money, time, and drugs, what would happen is that you would use a whole bunch of your drug of choice, then at some point you would crash and burn physically. There is a limit to the amount of tolerance that you can build, so just increasing the dose will only take you up so far (until it kills you eventually, there is a hard limit to the amount of any drug that can be ingested into a human body!) and so at some point you are going to have to come down and regroup. At that time you are going to feel bad. This is the only way to “get high” with drugs or alcohol, is to contrast the experience with a lack of drugs or alcohol. If there is no contrast with the unaltered state then being high all the time will cease to be entertaining or enjoyable. It will become so familiar that it will be perfectly normal and boring. The only way that it can be enjoyable again is if you stop ingesting the drug for a while and give your body a chance to start craving it again.
In light of all of this the insane cycle of addiction indeed looks pretty insane. The only way that you can really feel good while using your drug of choice is if you also feel bad at times by experiencing a lack of that drug. If you use it continuously eventually you will not really be getting “high,” instead you will just be getting “normal” when you use and therefore the thrill and enjoyment of your drug use is long gone.
The memory of those first few drug experiences
The problem with most addicts and alcoholics is that they are either consciously or unconsciously clinging to the memory of their first few experiences with drugs or alcohol.
You know, the “good times.”
Because those first few times that the addict or alcoholic got high were pretty much perfect.
For one thing, they did not have to experience the negative state, or the state of lacking drugs, or the state of withdrawal before they got high their first time. They just were living life, not knowing about drugs or alcohol, and suddenly they tried them for the first time and experienced this wonderful new high.
Second of all, they had very little consequences when they first got high. Because they had no tolerance built up, they could get high or drunk very easily without taking huge amounts of their drug, so there were no heavy consequences involved. They did not get sick from taking too much.
Third, there were probably no social consequences from their first drug experience. They just got high, they were experimenting, and this was understood to be acceptable. No one condemned them at this time for experimenting.
So when the addict or the alcoholic is struggling with their addiction years or even decades later, they have a tendency to cling to the memory of their first high. And why wouldn’t they? It was pretty much perfect, and it was a good time, and no one got hurt.
This is how denial works too. The addict is denying that things have gotten so much worse, and that they are so much more miserable now based on their addiction, and all the while they cling to this memory of what it was like in the good old days, when they first tried drugs.
Wishing that things were different
Ultimately at some point in their addiction, the addict begins to leave behind the fantasy of infinite supply, realizing that it will not bring them lasting happiness. They start to figure out that the drugs or the booze is actually contributing to their misery, and that they would not really be happy if they had an infinite supply of their drug of choice.
They will almost certainly still cling to the idea that their life would be perfect if they only had a million dollars and total personal freedom. Again these are both illusions and are masking deeper problems but for most addicts and alcoholics this is not the central issue at this point anyway; they just need to work on sobriety first and worry about pursuing happiness later. It will all come in time but of course nothing will change if they continue to self medicate with drugs or alcohol.
So after the addict has sort of accepted that more drugs are not going to make them happy, things sort of shift a bit. Now they want something else. Now they want to be happy, and they still have this fantasy outcome in their mind, but it may not involve an infinite supply of drugs anymore. Now it involves personal freedom, unlimited money, and the vague notion that “they never even started using drugs in the first place.”
In other words, they wish that things were different, and their fantasy takes them straight to the most comfortable and happiest scenario, one that is actually impossible, one that states that they never even picked up a drink or a drug to begin with.
Nearly every addict and alcoholic who is struggling to overcome their addiction expresses this sentiment at some point. They say “I wish I had never started on drugs or alcohol. I wish things were different.”
So at this point the addict is getting closer. They are not quite there yet though. It is obviously not enough to simply wish that things were different, or to wish that you had never been exposed to drugs or alcohol. This is still fantasy. It may be a comforting thought for the addict but ask yourself this:
Does it really change anything?
No it does not. It changes nothing. Having the fantasy and wishing your addiction away does not do a thing for you. It may point in the right direction, but it is not the same as moving in that direction.
Wanting the pain to stop
If you keep medicating with drugs and alcohol for long enough, eventually your life will be almost nothing but pain and misery. Remember that amazing feeling of elation and happiness that you got when you first tried your drug of choice? You will be lucky to experience that same feeling for one hour each month. For some addicts it will be even less than that. And yet the addict may stay stuck in denial for years, chasing the idea that they could possibly be happy all the time while self medicating, if only things were somehow different.
After several more years or possibly decades of this miserable existence, the addict will eventually arrive at a new want in their life. They will simply want the pain to stop. They will want the misery of addiction to go away. This is a step beyond just wishing that things were different. Now they really wish that things would change, that they might even change moving forward, and that if there was a way for the pain to stop, that surely they would embrace that change.
You can see how this is leading the addict closer and closer to the moment of true surrender.
At first, the addict or alcoholic wants an infinite supply of drugs. If they only had more, they would be able to be happy. Things would be perfect if they had more drugs.
Later on they want for things to be different, for their addiction to have never happened.
And finally they want for the pain to just stop, they fully accept that they are addicted, but they want for the misery to end.
So you can see that this progression is leading them closer and closer to the moment of surrender.
Obviously, we want the addict to get to the point where they say “I am tired of this pain and misery AND I am willing to do anything to make it stop.”
That is the point of true surrender and that is the point at which they can actually take meaningful action and turn their life around. Until they get to that point, though, no real lasting changes can be made. Until they get to that point, they are just stuck with their fantasy, wishing that things were different, or wishing that the pain would stop.
This is one reason why Al-anon teaches us that we should never deny an addict of their pain.
Addicts and alcoholics invite pain into their lives. They do this because of their addiction. As they continue to use and self medicate, consequences pile up. They get into trouble, they get into legal problems, and so on. If we are constantly trying to help the addict weasel out of these problems then we are not doing them any favors. Instead we should let them experience their own natural consequences and their own pain that they have invited into their lives. The reason that we do this is because their pain will eventually motivate them to change.
Addicts and alcoholics do not choose to get clean and sober in order to chase their happy dreams. No, instead they finally throw in the towel because they just want the pain to stop. Pain motivates change. So we learn that we should not deny an addict of their pain, because this pain will eventually motivate them to change their life.
The rewards of recovery without putting in the work
You cannot blame addicts and alcoholics for wanting something for nothing.
What they really want is the rewards of recovery, the rewards of a life well lived, for no work at all. This is what they really want.
And how can you blame them? They cheated nature and got a huge reward for hardly no work at all when they took their first drink or drug. They got this amazing feeling of elation and well being without having to do much of anything. They just ingested a substance and it changed their whole world, it fixed everything for them, and it gave them happiness. Instantly.
So it should not be too surprising that the addict or alcoholic should want the same thing when it comes to recovery.
But obviously we know that recovery does not work that way.
Recovery from addiction and from alcoholism is much more realistic than this. It is a path which basically says “I am not going to take any shortcuts. I am not going to expect something for nothing in this life. I am going to work hard to earn my own happiness. I am going to create the experience that I want to have in life.”
Notice how much fantasy is involved in addiction. The typical addict or alcoholic is always fantasizing about how things should be different, about how happy they could be if only things were different for them, and so on.
In recovery this fantasy idea gets flipped around into reality. Now you can start taking action and acting out your wishes, rather than just dreaming about how things might be different.
I did exactly that in my own recovery. I dreamed up some stuff that I wanted to happen, and then I made it happen! It was no longer a fantasy, or just stuff that I was vaguely wishing for. Instead I got specific, figured out what I most wanted in life, and then I started making it happen.
Recovery is like that. You get the whole world at your fingertips, you get this huge dose of power at your disposal, and you can use that power to start sculpting your own reality. I know that probably sounds like new age hype but it is pretty much true. Addicts and smart and resourceful people and you have all of this time and energy in recovery. What used to be spent chasing drugs and alcohol can now be spent on creative endeavors and new life goals. In recovery you have nothing but time and new energy and the whole world is at your fingertips to do with as you want.
In recovery you no longer have to fantasize and wish for things to be different. You can leave the fantasy behind to people who are still stuck in addiction, people who cannot act to change their situation. In recovery you have so much more power than this. You have time on your side now because you are not wasting hours every day using drugs and alcohol. You have resources on your side now because you are not wasting resources on drugs and alcohol. You have resources in social capital now because you have a community of people in recovery who want to help you to succeed.
If you believe that this kind of life and this kind of power is not open to you then you are mistaken. You can do anything you want in recovery, and it is only your addiction and your own mind that is holding you back.
There is a very simple price to pay for this power and freedom. You have to surrender completely to your disease, ask for help, and start following directions. This is a very humbling experience and therefore it is a very steep price to pay. Most people will not pay it, they prefer to be proud. But if ask for help and start humbly following directions eventually you will become very powerful in your recovery journey. It takes time but you have plenty of that. It takes effort and energy but you will have plenty of that too once you get off the drugs and booze.
The fantasy of a perfect life, if things were only different…..
Let me give you some helpful advice:
The fantasy is a lie.
The only time it is not a lie is if you are actively working towards turning that fantasy into a reality. At that point though it is your “plans,” not just some vague fantasy.
So leave the fantasy of a perfect life behind and instead start making plans. If you are still trapped in addiction then your plan should be quite simple:
Ask for help, and do what you are told to do. This will most likely mean treatment and/or 12 step programs. I would honestly just embrace whatever positive solution you are presented with, it matters very little. What matters is that you follow through and keep taking positive action in the long run.
Figure out what you want.
Make a plan.
If you are still using drugs or drinking, that plan should involve either treatment, rehab, asking for help and direction, or counseling or therapy. Pretty simple really.