How Powerlessness Became Synonomous with Addiction
The addiction treatment community has long since argued for and against the notion that individuals with addictions are ‘powerless’. Proponents tend to be traditional 12 Step treatment programs, physicians, and psychiatrists while those opposed tend to be psychologists, scholars, and mental health practitioners. The ongoing debate between these opposing camps has only hampered efforts by moderates to find common ground.
Let’s consider five different ways that powerlessness is understood in relation to addiction:
1. Powerlessness is a Choice
Harvard psychologist Gene M. Heyman suggested that individuals choose to be powerless. Dr. Heyman argues that addiction is voluntary rather than compulsory, and that addicts respond to incentives just like most other people. According to Dr. Heyman, interviews with drug users in recovery shows that quitting was preceded by such factors such as finances, family, career, and health.
People who suffer from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia, however, will rarely find improvement in their condition due to good intentions, even when followed by concrete steps. In other words, human beings are only truly powerless when faced with real diseases.
One important difference between Dr. Heyman and other opponents to the concept of powerlessness, however, is that while Dr. Heyman believes that to remain powerless over an addiction is a choice, no one chooses to become an addict. As we often reminds our clients, children rarely tell their parents “when I grow up, I want to be a drug addict.”
2. Powerlessness is a Lack of Willpower
Society often believes that people with a little bit of willpower can simply stop or reduce drug and alcohol use to socially acceptable levels. This mistaken belief fails to distinguish between the separate, progressive stages of compulsive use of misuse and addiction. A key characteristic of addiction is the failure to stop using in spite of negative consequences. Misusers of alcohol or drugs will often stop excessive consumption when they are in a new environment where getting high or drunk is no longer encouraged or when they experience negative consequences. For individuals with addictions, drinking or drug use will continue even after job loss, divorce, or illness.
Even for people who don’t struggle with addiction, it is arguable whether simply trying harder is an effective method for attaining any worthy goal. Most who have tried to lose weight or have implored their children to improve their grades know that trying harder may work, but only temporarily. Without an effective strategy and implementation plan, willpower is not enough.
3. Powerlessness is the Same as Helplessness
Helplessness can be understood as the tendency for some addicted individuals to assign blame to external forces and avoid taking personal responsibility. So, when someone says “I am powerless to stop my addiction” they could be actually saying, for example, “my drinking wouldn’t be a problem if only my wife would get off my case.” This lack of accountability is typically obvious to everyone but the individual with the addiction.
While it may be easy to spot helplessness in another person, determining the root cause of why someone is incapable of taking action is far more challenging. For example, helplessness could be a response to childhood trauma, a phobia, or depression.
4. Powerlessness is a Symptom of a Disease
The disease concept of addiction found an early advocate in the recovery movement with Dr. William Duncan Southworth, physician to AA founder Bill Wilson. By providing a physiological explanation for why alcoholics are powerless over their use of alcohol and through his close affiliation with Bill Wilson, Dr. Southworth helped shift the balance of power in addiction from organized religion to medicine.
Dr. Southworth’s observation that alcoholism cycles between mental obsession and physical lack of control (or powerlessness) has stood the test of time. Defined this way, powerlessness is a common criterion used in the assessment of addiction. For example, we look at the 3 Cs of Addiction: compulsion, control, and consequences.
5. Accepting Powerlessness is Critical to Lasting Recovery
This last example of powerlessness will hopefully conclude this blog on a hopeful note. Many individuals have successfully come to terms with their addiction and have gone on to lead fulfilling lives in addiction recovery. Our clients learn spiritual principles that often prove helpful as fundamental guidelines for recovery. One spiritual principle, acceptance, seems particularly effective and is closely tied to the notion of powerlessness.
Ernest Kurtz suggests that “from the alcoholic’s acceptance of personal limitation arises the beginning of healing and wholeness”. To Ernest Kurtz, this is an “affirmation of one’s connectedness with other alcoholics.” We wholly endorse the notion of connectedness and extend it further to include family members, co-workers, and friends.
In the early days of Sunshine Coast Health Center, we will always remember how insistent one of our first clinicians was on the importance of making sure clients understand, at a gut level, Step One. As far as he was concerned, without a firm understanding of powerlessness, it is difficult, if not impossible, to properly work the remaining 11 Steps.
We have learned over the years that words can often have multiple meanings and can trigger certain emotions depending on the perspective of the listener. By avoiding rigid absolutes, we believe that our integrated, individualized approach allows clients to embrace multiple perspectives and appreciate the complexity of addiction and meaningful recovery.