willpower doesn't work with alcoholism or drug addiction

Why Willpower Doesn’t Cure Addiction

I see it all the time….that strange look in someone’s eyes when I tell them I am an alcoholic. It looks like an evacuation. The eyes are still there but their owner has left the building. The consciousness retreats and ping-pongs around inside the head with thoughts like:

She seems so together but she must have no willpower.”

Thank goodness I am stronger than she is.”

Poor thing. I’ll be nice right now and get away as soon as I can.”

I get it.  We alcoholics and drug addicts have not historically done much to improve our own public image, especially lately. What most people see in the news are overdoses, car wrecks and ruined lives. Aside from the occasional celebrity account of ruin turned to sober riches, the success stories aren’t nearly as newsworthy. With so few examples to the contrary, most people believe that addicts lack moral fiber and willpower. If they just tried some self-control, they would be okay, right?

This recovering addict used to think the same thing. Even in the midst of my affliction, I thought I could control or eradicate my alcoholism with willpower….only to fail over and over and over again. Certainly I had willpower in other areas in my life. I had saved and worked hard to put myself through college. With honors. Working full time. Uphill both ways. When no one believed I could do it, I started my own company with nothing but a computer and a overactive work ethic. I had walked through fire and fears throughout life fueled by fierce determination and willpower. But, when it came to alcohol, none of these qualities helped at all.

The official definition of willpower is “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.” In other words, we forcefully delay gratification now for even greater results later. Doesn’t sound like fun, but we all do it all the time. I delay the gratification of staying in my warm bed every morning to get up, go to work, and pay for that warm bed. I delay the gratification of that second candy bar so I can fit into my jeans later. I shut off that scrumptious Netflix show I am binging so I can get enough sleep and function properly tomorrow. It goes on and on. We all have willpower all day.

Regardless of how much or little willpower you think you have, it will not eradicate drug addiction and alcoholism. Addiction, it turns out, is an entirely different animal. Pharmaceutical intervention, coping techniques and willpower don’t give us permanent solutions to addiction.

Why doesn’t willpower work against addiction?

The answers may surprise you.

1. We don’t choose addiction.

Nobody wakes up and says,” I think I’ll start drinking constantly today and keep doing that until I ruin my health, my relationships and my life.” Maybe the first years of drinking or drugging were a choice. They were fun, or seemed to calm the nerves or whatever the reason we had. But at some point, we lose the ability to choose. Drugs and alcohol are now at the helm and can do what they want. That’s what addiction means; we want to stop but we can’t. No amount of control or force can make us stop. We can be powerful in many or all other areas of life, but, with addiction, we are powerless.

2. Willpower is exhausting

Science has proven this. Once again, research validates what we alcoholics and addicts have always known.

“Brain cells working hard to maintain self-control consume glucose faster than it can be replenished.”

https://www.apa.org/topics/personality/willpower

So, we can have all the willpower and determination the world, and decide without a doubt that we are FINISHED with the drugs and alcohol FOREVER, NO MATTER WHAT. Eventually, though, the sheer physical toll of exerting willpower depletes our mental and physical energy and, ultimately, our resolve. Eventually, we are picking up the drug or drink again. It is not because we are weak, it is just how the brain and body work.

“Resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.

https://www.apa.org/topics/personality/willpower

3. Willpower relies on the thinking that created the problem.

Willpower has been defined as “conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.

Okay. I can only speak for myself, but when I was drinking, my thinker was broken. My mind was telling me some crazy things like ”You can have a little tiny drink and you’ll be fine,” despite thousands of instances that proved that theory wrong. It was scientifically impossible for me to have one drink. It always, invariably, led to more drinks, drunkenness, embarrassment and depression. Every time. The alcohol-addled mental processes I was using were at the merciless whim of King Alcohol.

The disease of addiction is very sneaky. It can tell you that you are done drinking in the morning and drive you to the liquor store in the afternoon. It can’t be trusted. Especially when it is wearing the cloak of “willpower.”

So…no. Regulation of the addicted self by the addicted self does not work. Thankfully, with some meaningful sobriety under my belt, I now know that the self that I thought I was then and the self I really am are vastly different.

4. Willpower diminishes with false memory.

Euphoric recall. That’s what it’s called in our circles. To explain, let’s say you’ve gone a few days without that drug. You are feeling clear, healthy, and pretty darned proud of yourself. “I’ve got this thing licked”, you say to yourself. Or maybe you say,” Perhaps I was making this drinking thing into a big deal when it’s really not. Look how easy it is to stop!” That’s a good one.

So, you are going about your merry sober way and BAM! Someone makes you mad or you are feeling emotional. Or maybe life just gives you a little kick, and it’s wearing cleats….AS IT ALWAYS WILL. This is where the euphoric recall comes in. You harken back to that time you had a drink and it immediately calmed your nerves. That’s euphoric recall. You, strangely, don’t remember the rest of the story. That lovely drink was followed by many other drinks. You ended up feeling worse than you did before. Maybe there were tears, or fights, or wrecks. Maybe you just could not perform at work the next day and felt like crap. But, do we remember that part of the story? Nope. We only remember the good times, which sabotages our willpower. We don’t yet have the tools to handle the hard parts of life so we reach for what we THINK is relief….drugs and alcohol. Spoiler alert: it’s not relief.

5. Willpower closes us off from the solution

Willpower is active strain against what is happening right now. We strain to control our cravings and urges. We strain to fight the feelings that come up and make us want to drink. We struggle to be “strong” and resist showing weakness in asking for help. Doesn’t that sound really difficult? Just writing those sentences made me tired.

As we said before, while willpower will work with many things in life, addiction is a different type of beast.

We fight addiction by giving up the fight.

Sounds counterintuitive, but it is true. If we want lasting, meaningful recovery, we have to be open. We have to be open to other people that can help us. We have to be open enough to look at things in our past that make us drink or use drugs. Maybe we had trauma. Maybe we have destructive patterns we can’t see. We have to be open enough to have the help of mentors and community to get rid of these things we have been carrying around for so long. When we are open, we can make connections with others who have been through the same thing. There is no need to look strong or like “You’ve got this,” around a bunch of other addicts in recovery. We know the drill and just want to help.

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So, if you want to be like me and do it the hard way, try willpower. Over and over and over again. For years and years and years.

If you want kick addiction the easy way, give up. Ask for help.

Now, is it absolutely impossible to kick drugs and alcohol with willpower? No, it can be done. But the success stories are very rare and can be very sad. I personally know someone who quit drinking with willpower alone. That’s great. But she didn’t have the salve she felt she needed to get through life. She didn’t connect with others who could help her get to the point where she didn’t want alcohol at all. So she stayed isolated and angry for the rest of her life. Tragic, but true.

This ex-drinker and sick thinker is one among many thousands who can tell you that there is a better, easier way. There is a way to kick addiction and live life without needing willpower against alcohol and drugs. We can stop exhausting ourselves with inner resolve that doesn’t work. We can stop following crazy thoughts that come from the problem. We can get our butts kicked by life and still not even think about drinking or doing drugs because we KNOW it isn’t relief. We can make lifelong connections with others who have a similar story. We can be ourselves….powerful, peaceful, purposeful and sober….without straining against our lower natures.

It all starts with that one thing: asking for help.

Fortunately, there are many ways to get help out there. You can go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. As of this writing, many meetings are on Zoom and you don’t even have to leave the house to get help. There are many reputable rehab centers that have a strong record of helping people find long-term sobriety. Ventura Recovery Center is one. Here’s their number: 800-247-6111. No matter which way you go, know there are thousands of us rooting for you. You can do this…just not alone.