Do addicts have a choice?
That’s the thought-provoking question psychiatrist and author Sally Satel explored in a recent article in The Atlantic. She intriguingly asked if there’s any “science” to validate the claim addicts can actually choose?
There is, she insists. Her article points to studies from the 1960’s onwards showing many addicts are able to modify their behaviour “in response to rewards or sanctions”.
The author rightly doesn’t pretend it’s an easy choice.
“It’s not a matter of just saying no—recovery requires far more grit and conviction than that—but it is very much a matter of regarding addicts as people who can rationally choose to use opportunities to their advantage, and working to provide those opportunities,” she says.
But what if we’re coping with an addict – especially one convinced they can’t make better choices, or simply don’t want to?
Do we have a choice? Can we choose how to view them, and might that make a difference?
A story about a crack-addicted mother featured on Brandon Stanton’s hugely popular Facebook page, Humans of New York, suggests it might.
The photo-story centred on one of her daughters recollecting her troubled childhood “in a bad neighbourhood” when she and her siblings were often left on their own “without lights, water, or heat” – sometimes for days.
At times their mother would even feed her habit by pocketing hard-earned cash her nine-year-old son had laboured for by “hustling” for odd jobs around the neighbourhood.
Finally grandma stepped in and took the kids away. They didn’t hear from their mom for a long time. As the years passed, they struggled with her rejection of them and her noticeable absence at things like school events.
However, a near-tragedy started to turn things around when this daughter nearly died from West Nile Virus at 15. As a result her mother “got serious about rehab”.
“She didn’t laugh it off anymore. She’d call and talk about the things she was learning in her counseling sessions. She’d tell me about the milestones she reached. She finally got clean and now we’re best friends. We talk every day. Out of all my siblings, I’ve been the most forgiving.”
What struck me about this story was the young woman’s explanation of why she felt so forgiving.
She recalled: “I think it was easiest for me because I managed to separate the addiction from the person. Even with how bad it got, and with everything she put us through, there was never a moment that I doubted she loved us.”
Was this daughter exceptionally saintly, or can we all learn to mentally separate the addiction from the addict?
There’s reason to believe we can. But it takes inner resources to see what this woman saw – her mother’s loving nature still there, beyond the tragic behaviour.
Such a recognition saved another woman told by doctors she’d die if she didn’t stop drinking. Sadie certainly didn’t feel her alcoholism was a choice. She had faithfully tried everything to kick her habit – medication, psychotherapy, hypnosis, meditation and self-help groups. But she couldn’t stop.
Finally, she was introduced to someone with the spiritual perception to see her as an expression of divine Love – in “the image and likeness” of the Divine, as the Bible says – completely separate from her self-destructive tendencies.
From that vantage point, this woman – a Christian Science practitioner – told Sadie: “You need to change the basis of how you view yourself. When you do that, you won’t need to leave the drinking. The desire to drink will leave you.”
Sadie took that to heart, and it proved accurate. She’d found a different viewpoint from which to think and act, one that’s equally valid for everyone we care for. She saw that we’re not confined to our material history, unable to break free from it, but are divinely defined as forever free. Her desire for alcohol quickly left and, more than two decades later, hasn’t returned.
That’s not to gloss over the often demanding spiritual journey required to prove this in practice, for a commitment to constantly see ourselves or loved ones through a diviner lens takes prayerful persistence.
But, as Sadie and others have found, it’s worth it if it offers an addict another option besides spiralling deeper into despair or just managing cravings assumed to be permanent.
Making better choices is precious progress for an addict. As a former gambling addict myself, I can vouch for that. My journey out of addiction was step by step.
Yet beyond that safer haven, lies an even deeper hope of finding a permanent, divinely empowered route right out of addiction.
This blog was first posted on The News Hub as “Seeing beyond another’s addiction”.