Incentives are interesting things to explore when it comes to addiction and recovery. I have done some of my own experiments in this arena when it comes to cigarette and nicotine addiction, and I actually found that creating disincentives for myself did not work so well.
What I did at one point in an attempt to quit smoking was to give one hundred dollars to a second party, and I told them if I smoked in the next 30 days that they were to keep the money and not give it back to me. I really did not want to lose the hundred dollars, but even more than that, I did not want the money to go to this particular person.
It didn’t work. Even though I had already repeatedly tried to quit smoking, this idea of using a disincentive failed me. I ended up smoking and forfeiting the money.
Later on I was able to successfully quit smoking cigarettes. But this time, I used the power of positive incentives to motivate myself rather than disincentives. So what I did was this: I started saving in advance–saving up my own money, in fact–so that I would have a way to reward myself. I decided that I would celebrate by eating steak every night for dinner while I was quitting smoking. And I had reward money saved that I could spend on myself, however I wanted, in the event that I made it to 30 days nicotine free.
It worked this time. I am not sure if that is because I was using “reward incentives” rather than “punishment incentives,” or if it worked because I was simply in a state of total and complete surrender this time.
I also believe that things are a bit different when it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, as compared to something like nicotine.
It is important to realize the difference between these two addictions. Nicotine addiction, while extremely destructive, does not actually make my life all that unmanageable. If you compare alcoholism with cigarette addiction, the alcoholic is far more unmanageable. Nicotine addiction may kill you in the end, but you don’t end up in jail. You don’t die from an overdose. The “unmanageable” part of nicotine addiction is only apparent when it kills you from lung cancer. The actual smoking of cigarettes every day–while unhealthy and inconvenient–is actually very manageable.
Alcoholism and “real” drug addiction create much more immediate consequences. And the problem is that when you are stuck in addiction and alcoholism you lose hope. It is a hopeless state of being when you are trapped in a cycle of addiction and you don’t see a way out.
Obviously if the alcoholic could just stop drinking and be happy instantly they would do so. But alcoholics are trapped because they cannot see this as a viable solution; the thought of being sober is terrifying. They cannot just quit, or they would.
I can remember when my family and friends were trying to convince me to stop drinking alcohol. At the time I was struggling to find some kind of path to sanity, and I felt as if I were going insane. I could not picture my life without alcohol and drugs in it, and I could not really picture myself continuing on with the insanity of addiction either. I was trapped, and stuck.
My family convinced me to go to rehab. I went to inpatient treatment and I went to AA meetings in the facility. At the meetings there was a very motivational speaker who was in recovery himself, and he tried to convey a message of hope. And I was really impressed with his message of hope and I even got excited about the prospect of recovery while he was speaking.
However, I knew that it wasn’t going to happen for me. And it didn’t. The problem was that I was still trapped; I was still stuck. I could tell that I was not yet ready to surrender completely because I was not willing to dedicate my life to AA. And this was obviously what was required if one was going to succeed in recovery.
I wanted what this man had. I wanted to be sober and happy and excited and passionate about life, just like he was. But I felt sad because I knew that I did not have it in me. I was held back by fear. The AA program scared me and the meetings intimidated me. I could not convince myself to dive in and take the program seriously because it was just too uncomfortable to do so. I kept saying “I am wired differently; I must be unique, I was destined to self medicate with drugs and alcohol. That is the only thing that works for me, that is the only thing that fixes my anxiety.”
That was, of course, denial. I was stuck in fear.
It is only fear that holds the addict or alcoholic back from finding real recovery.
And there is no incentive that can convince the alcoholic to transcend this fear. That man that spoke with such passion, he could not convince me to give AA a chance in spite of my fear. I was stuck in denial, and there was no carrot on a stick that could lead me to sobriety. Nothing could have caused me to get excited about AA and to suddenly dive into the program and succeed with it at that time.
So what did work? Not incentives.
What worked is that I went back to drinking and drugs for another year, and just about killed myself with depression and addiction. And I got so miserable from that experience that I finally hit rock bottom and I surrendered.
Once I reached this state of surrender I was finally ready to recover.
I then asked for help, and went to rehab, and was willing to do whatever they told me to do at this point. But it was not because I wanted this amazing new life for myself, because in fact, I had no hope that I could ever really be happy again. I was still hopeless. There was no incentive. I was just completely done, completely sick and tired, and I was ready for a change. So I gave rehab another chance, in spite of having failed at treatment twice before.
And this time, it worked. Surrender was the key.