Can an alcoholic or a drug addict learn to control their impulses?
Short answer: No, not while they are still putting chemicals into their body.
In other words, I do not believe that an alcoholic or a drug addict can learn moderation. In fact, this is the very definition of an alcoholic or an addict. If you actually CAN learn to moderate, then you were never addicted to begin with. Or from a functional standpoint, what does it really matter? If you can moderate successfully then you don’t have a problem.
There is only a problem if there is a problem! Seems obvious enough, right? But this is part of where the confusion comes in. And so we throw around the word “real” alcoholic or a “real” drug addict. If a person is a real alcoholic then they can never learn to moderate successfully, and so on.
This has been my experience and this has been what I have learned and observed over the years. Certain people are alcoholic and if they try to go back to drinking then it always ends in disaster. They are a victim of their own madness. Drinking or drug use just fuels the beast, but the real beast is something deeper inside that doesn’t really have to do with a chemical addiction. In other words, I agree with NA that the drugs or the booze is but a symptom of our disease.
And ultimately this is why you cannot just learn to control your impulses while also putting chemicals into your body. The problem is that alcoholism and drug addiction are not just about the impulse of taking a random drink or a drug. They are emotional diseases. They are holistic, they infect the entire mind, body, and spirit. It is not just a mental glitch that makes you want to drink or use drugs based on a whim. It is much deeper than that. Before you relapse physically you relapse emotionally. Our relationships drive us to self medicate. After a few years of this self medicating we no longer know how to deal with our feelings without using our drug of choice to cover it up.
Why you cannot just overcome drug addiction through sheer willpower
Willpower alone is not enough to beat an addiction.
The reason for this is not so much because willpower is not strong enough to beat the disease, rather it is that the willpower is so often misguided.
In other words, you actually CAN use willpower to overcome an addiction, but only if you kill off your ego and take lots of advice from other people in the process. You must combine that approach with your willpower. So in other words, you are no longer really relying on just your willpower. You are using the help of others as well.
The problem with willpower is that the individual uses it alone. They try to wield it as their only weapon. They grit their teeth and decide that it is “just them against the world” and that they are going to overcome their addiction all by themselves.
This never works. The disease is too strong if you try to defeat it with your ego alone. Just trying to overcome your addiction by yourself can be overwhelming. The problem is that you give yourself lousy advice and sabotage your best efforts. This is all part of the disease.
Some people who are able to use willpower to abstain from their addiction are not really all that happy. The problem is that they are basically a dry drunk at this point. They are gritting their teeth in order to avoid drinking. They are using willpower alone and they are not getting any outside help and they are quite miserable. The problem is that they are not replacing their addiction with anything positive. Their ego is still running the show and their ego is angry that it is not being fed with alcohol and drugs. So the person who can abstain based on willpower is not a happy person. They resent the fact that they have to be sober at all. This is not a good way to live and furthermore it is not sustainable. Eventually their misery will drive them to relapse. They were never really “recovering” in the first place, they were just dry for a while based on their self guided willpower attempt.
There is a path to real recovery that involves killing your ego. Then you rebuild your life and you reinvent yourself. This is not really a process that you do all by yourself. In order to reinvent yourself you are going to need input from other people. In order to overcome addiction you are going to need to learn how to deal with life without self medicating. This requires input and feedback from others. You can get knowledge out of books but you are going to need more than that in my experience. You are going to need other people to show you how to recover.
If you are trying to use “sheer willpower” to beat your addiction then this implies that you are not tapping into other people as a resource for recovery. My belief is that you are going to fail if you do not use the help of other people. In early recovery you really need to surrender, kill you ego, and learn to rebuild your life through other the example of others.
Building a foundation of recovery to be able to learn impulse control (or abstinence)
Of course the alcoholic or the drug addict can, in fact, learn to control their impulses through the use of total abstinence.
But it is important to point out that this does not “cure” them in the sense that they can never successfully moderate their drug or alcohol use. The only way for them to recover is if they abstain entirely. This is what defines addiction in my opinion.
So how does the alcoholic learn to do this?
This is the process of recovery:
1) Surrender. All abstinence based recovery must start with the concept of surrender. If the alcoholic does not surrender then they cannot get started. When you surrender, you accept the idea that abstinence is required and that you can never learn to moderate your drinking or drug use successfully. Often a person must work through their denial in order to get to the point of surrender.
2) Action. The alcoholic has to take real action in order to recover. For most people the most obvious path is to go to inpatient rehab. There are other potential paths to sobriety but going to inpatient rehab is a simple and straightforward action that gets the process started off in the right direction. You could do worse.
3) Commitment. This may be the “willpower” component but notice that it is just one piece of the puzzle. Many alcoholics have left rehab and relapsed. The ones who remain sober have made a deep commitment to themselves to do so. If it is possible to learn “impulse control” then you must commit to total abstinence and then follow that up with serious action and sustained effort.
4) Follow through. If you leave inpatient rehab then they give you certain things to follow up on in terms of aftercare. If you fail to do these things then relapse becomes much more likely. If you follow through and take consistent action then it increases your chances of sobriety in the long run. You build a foundation of success by taking positive action each and every day.
5) Personal growth. Challenge yourself to keep improving your life and your life situation. As you improve yourself and your life you build a protective wall around your recovery. This is relapse prevention in action.
That is the recovery process as I see it. Many of the principles you see there (such as surrender) are found in other recovery programs, because some of these principles of recovery are fundamental. In other words, they are universal, regardless of which recovery program you are following.
Designing a strategy that allows you to overcome triggers and urges in the long run
In early recovery you may go to rehab, attend meetings, and get a sponsor to help guide you through the recovery process.
But in long term sobriety, people still relapse at times for no apparent reason. If someone relapses after 5 years sober, is it because they failed to call their sponsor often enough? I don’t really believe so myself.
No, if someone has multiple years sober and they end up relapsing, it is because they did not have a good strategy for recovery. In other words it is not a tactical problem (missed an AA meeting, did not call their sponsor, etc.), but it is a strategic problem. They did not know how to live.
Therefore if you are in recovery then one of your long term goals should be to design and adopt a strategy for living that serves you well and also helps to protect you from relapse.
So you might be asking yourself: “What kind of strategy for living my life would help to protect me from relapse?”
That is an excellent question that we should all be asking ourselves!
My opinion is that there are certain ideas, concepts, and principles that can be discovered that will help us to live a better life.
For example, one alcoholic might find that daily exercise really helps them a great deal and it is part of the foundation of their recovery. It helps them to prevent relapse.
Another person might find that exercise does not do much for them but that meditation really helps them a great deal.
So the question is, how could these two people be led to discover these things so that they can both strengthen their recovery? How do you instruct them to live so that they can learn what truly helps them to recover?
Here are my suggestions and findings:
1) Our strategy for recovery should involve holistic health. In other words, you cannot just say “I did not drink today so I am healthy.” You need to dig deeper than that and look at all areas of your health: Mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. Then you need to make sure that you are improving your health in all of those areas on a regular basis.
2) Personal growth should be part of your recovery strategy. You want to improve your life (internal) and also your life situation (external). We talk about the external as being the “people, places, and things” in our lives that can lead us to relapse if we are not careful. If you want to work on the internal stuff then I would suggest that you get a sponsor and try to work through the 12 steps of AA with that person. This will help you to address things like fear, resentment, shame, guilt, self pity, and so on. Your strategy for life should involve an effort to improve your life both on the inside as well as the outside. Internal and external.
3) Taking suggestions. This is the final piece of the puzzle for me. Holistic health, personal growth, and taking suggestions from other people. Those are the 3 pillars of successful sobriety. If you hit on all three of those things then your recovery will be very stable indeed. But the key is that you have to actually listen to other people and take their advice. Doing so is a shortcut to wisdom. You find other people who are already successful in recovery and you ask them what advice they have for you. Ignoring such advice is incredibly foolish. Listening to such advice and acting on it is a shortcut to success. And yet, how many of us do not utilize this simple technique, this shortcut to wisdom?
Why individual tactics for relapse prevention are not as powerful as a good strategy
Many people see addiction recovery as a mash up of recovery tips and tactics. In reality it doesn’t work that way. “Have a craving, call your sponsor.” “Feel an impulse to drink, go to an AA meeting.” This is sound advice but in the heat of the moment it is not always very actionable advice.
In other words, all of these relapse prevention tactics fly out the window if your world all comes crashing down and you relapse emotionally. Once your brain says “screw it, I am going to drink” then all of the tips and tricks to help you stay sober are useless.
So instead of finding tips and tricks for recovery that can only work in the short run, we need to adopt a strategy for living that can prevent emotional relapse from happening in the first place. Because once your relapse emotionally (have not drank yet but your brain is saying “screw everything”) then it is too late for tactics to be of any use.
My three part strategy consists of personal growth, holistic health, and taking suggestions from others. The latter may sound like a tactic but it is really a way of life once you start practicing it.
How to beat alcoholism and drug addiction in the long run
In order to beat alcoholism or drug addiction in the long run and remain sober you have to keep reinventing yourself. And at the same time you have to keep rebuilding your life.
What does that mean?
It means that you always pushing yourself to improve, both inside and out.
It means that you stay open to suggestions and to learning new things, which is why “taking suggestions from other people” is such a powerful strategic decision. When you open yourself up to advice and feedback from others you accelerate your ability to grow in recovery. It becomes a multiplier.
In the long run you must adopt this strategy of personal growth in order to be successful.
There is a saying in traditional recovery circles that goes: “You are either working on recovery or you are working on a relapse.” There is no other option, because no other option exists. The wisdom of recovery has discovered that if you are not actively working on your sobriety then eventually you will slide back into your old behaviors.
So you cannot just “stand still” in recovery. If you try to stand still then you are actually sinking back into the negative. The only way to remain sober in the long run is to keep building, keep pushing yourself forward, keep improving your life. This is why I say that you must keep reinventing yourself to remain sober. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Well, it is. But let me let you in on a little secret that is very difficult grasp: It is a lot of work no matter what you do.
In other words, if you choose to relapse because recovery is just too much work and effort, you will look back later and discover that you really did not avoid any work at all. If you choose to relapse then you have your work cut out for you as well. Life gets more and more difficult if you get trapped in the negative spiral of addiction.
So the truth is that you are looking at hard work no matter what you do. Because it is not going to be an easy life if you continue to self medicate with drugs or alcohol, nor is it going to be easy to maintain sobriety. Either path requires a lot of effort (and possibly struggle).
But one path offers peace, happiness, and contentment. The path of recovery offers you these benefits, but you have to pay for them. You pay for them with commitment, willingness, and action. You have to put forth a massive effort in order to get these rewards. In fact it will probably be more effort than you have ever put into anything before in your entire life. This was what I experienced for myself in early recovery. I tried harder at recovery than I had ever tried at anything, and it paid off. Most of my peers took a more casual approach to recovery and those that did all relapsed.
No, recovery takes serious work. I cannot tell you that it is easy or that there will never be any struggle or challenges.
But I can tell you this much: It definitely gets easier. In fact it gets a whole lot easier over time, especially if you lay a strong foundation in early recovery by using the principles that I talk about in this article (holistic health, personal growth, taking suggestions).
Long term sobriety is about building this foundation over months and years. If you keep taking positive action consistently, every single day, and you never backslide, then where will you end up over the next decade? I can tell you from personal experience that the results are amazing if you put in this work. But your effort must be consistent, otherwise you will sabotage your results due to backsliding. Someone who relapses every few months is not making progress. They are backsliding over and over again, getting nowhere fast.
Only consistent positive action can get you the rewards of sobriety. And this need for consistency is why you need a strategy for recovery rather than just a list of tactics.
What do you think, can an alcoholic learn to control their impulses and learn to moderate their drinking? Or is abstinence the only way that real impulse control can be achieved? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!