Free Will is a Choice

Barely a day goes by that we don’t hear some ‘expert’ refer to alcohol and drug abuse problems as medical diseases. Many qualified professionals disagree, however. They suggest that false beliefs — not physical maladies — play a primary role in the development of the urge to abuse alcohol and drugs. Cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy attempts to challenge these illogical beliefs so that the individual will gradually experience a decrease in those urges.

So what are some of these irrational, yet popular, attitudes that can result in substance abuse? Some examples include, ‘Life without using is boring; I can’t have fun unless I use drugs.’ Such a view relies on the mistaken idea that pleasure must be mindless and shortsighted. Individuals who can enjoy a good movie, a good book or a stimulating discussion are much less likely to develop substance abuse problems than cynics who sneer at the ‘nerdiness’ of such activities. Genuine pleasure need not result in a hangover.

‘I cannot control my usage; I am powerless over it.’ This idea ignores the existence of free will. The fact that it’s not easy to control an addictive behavior does not mean that it’s impossible to do so. Free will requires a 24/7 commitment to facing reality. The choice to abuse drugs and alcohol is an attempt to escape reality. Even troubled people have the power to access their free will, if they choose.

Most addicts I’ve met can readily identify situations in which they felt like using, but chose not to. Such exceptions can signal the beginning of recovery. The fight against addiction can be undermined by the idea that one setback wipes out all progress. Instead of viewing a relapse as a regrettable occurrence and a learning experience, addicts will often use the setback as a rationalization to start using again, since ‘it’s all hopeless anyway.’ Convenient, isn’t it?

‘I can’t relax without drugs.’ Vast numbers of people manage stress without drugs or alcohol. This one’s just another convenient excuse.

‘Having this drug problem means I am fundamentally a bad person.’ Good people honestly attempt to achieve happiness in life. The contradiction here is that drug and alcohol abuse does not bring long-term happiness. You can’t fully experience life through the fog of a hangover. Sadly, too many addicts have bought into the puritanical notion that pleasure is evil. So it’s only natural that they rebel against such irrational ideas by sneaking-in short-term pockets of chemically induced ‘pleasure.’

‘I don’t need to stop using; it’s not hurting me.’ This belief only appears credible when family or friends enable the problem by shielding the addict from the consequences of his or her self-destructive habits. Instead of forcing the addict to take responsibility for the emotional costs of his addiction, loved ones perpetuate the problem by making excuses for the abuser, such as calling his boss to say he has the flu when he actually has a hangover. They may go to the store and buy the addict a six-pack. They may rationalize their actions by maintaining that addiction is a disease, and that the abuser is not morally responsible for his behaviors. It’s difficult to overemphasize the destructive role that enablers play in extending the life of an addiction.

‘I can’t control my anxiety/depression without drugs.’ Anxiety and depression are caused by ideas grounded in myth rather than in fact. Examples include, ‘I have a right to happiness; I shouldn’t have to work for it’ or, ‘Only ‘selfish’ people seek happiness in this life’ or, ‘Disaster is always around the corner.’ Uncovering these beliefs is not easy and may even require professional assistance. But one thing remains true: You can’t manage such problems by chemically shutting down your mental functions. It may feel better in the short-run, but anyone who believes that one can control or cure their problems by denying their existence is living in a fool’s paradise.

‘I’m not ready to stop using.’ The longer you put off any demanding task, the more difficult it becomes. By avoiding the task you develop a distorted view of it and often will see it as harder than it really is. Think about all the times you put off doing something — even something simple like making your bed or emptying the dishwasher — and when you finally did it you realized it was not as bad as you expected. In fact, you probably felt some gratification because you removed another obstacle from your life. Now, magnify that feeling a million times, and you have a clue as to the emotional satisfaction of overcoming an addiction that was systematically destroying your life.

Taking charge of your mind is the ultimate high. And, without dependence on drugs or alcohol, the sense of self-control and mastery over your life will be real, not fake.