Going Beyond “Right and Wrong”
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, in the field of addictions, there is a huge emphasis on “who’s right and who’s wrong”, and this causes a lot of conflict, anger and even fighting among us. (Perhaps your experience has been similar.)
So what do we disagree on? Without wanting to be facetious, one could say almost everything. From “addiction is a disease” to addiction isn’t a disease. Some people swear by the 12 steps (as the only method of treatment) and just as many who swear at them. There are disagreements about how much choice we have; whether you can deal with several addictions at the same time (part of my reason for starting All Addictions Anonymous); what substances or behaviors are actually addictions; what the differences between addictions and bad habits are; and even, who is an “addict” at all.
When I was in early “recovery”, I would go to 12 step meetings and judge people as being either moderate drinkers, hard drinkers or “real alcoholics”. I took pride in convincing you I was a “real hardcore” alcoholic/addict, saying things like, “You’re not addicted. Let me tell you about being addicted!” and then share my worst (or best) war stories to convince you of how I was different from you. I was making others right or wrong, and separating my patterns of addiction from those of others – and I hurt many people by doing this. Looking back, I see the way I treated some people as being abusive. I could not see it at the time. I was blinded by my arrogance – thinking my way was the only real right way – and if you did not agree, I judged you as being in denial.
What Actually Is an “Addiction?”
The medical “bible” on addictions that I referred to in the last section, called the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition), includes only a small number of substances – essentially alcohol, drugs and nicotine – in its list. To be factual, it doesn’t even use the word “addictions” at all, but rather refers to “substance abuse” and “substance dependence.” The next proposed edition (DSM-5) does use the term addiction, but the list is still quite small. For example, gambling is the only “behavioral addiction” that will be included; issues like sex and Internet use were considered, but have not yet been accepted. So the medical way of looking at addictions is a slowly developing process.
But what about the large number of other “addiction-like” conditions that people are experiencing? For example, consider eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Many people I know believe these are addictions; however, the professional community does not. Instead, it calls them “mental health disorders.” Then there is the “addiction movement” itself, where the term addiction is used for a wide range of issues from overeating to codependency to criminal behavior. In fact, if you do an Internet search on 12-step groups, there are more than 100 different types of fellowships. So who is really “right” about what is “actually an addiction?”
What Does “Our Ability to Stop” Mean?
Another key aspect for determining what is an addiction is our ability or inability to stop – something I’ve also used in my definition. But who can really determine that for certain? And when we say “stop,” do we mean “stay stopped?” This concept gets us into all kinds of debates.
For example, if our brain chemistry shows we are dependent on a drug or behavior, does that mean we are unable to stop using it? Experience shows that that’s not always the case. Or, if we do find a way to stop a behavior, how long do we need to stay stopped for it to not be considered an addiction? What is the line between “I can’t stop” and “if I had enough motivation, I would stop?” Or when we do discover new ways to stop – as people continually are – does that mean that they (or we) didn’t have an addiction in the first place? Or are they all in denial, headed for relapse because they did not stop in the way we think is “The Right Way.”
I think you can see the difficulties here, and why there’s so much disagreement among those who have been working for years, if not most of their life, to understand addictions, what causes them and how to treat them.
Now I’m not saying that it’s wrong to disagree. We all see things differently, and this process can help us learn from different perspectives. But the problem comes when we focus most of our energy trying to prove our rightness over others. What’s more, communications among us often get quite heated, even abusive. People like Stanton Peele, for example, were attacked when they disagreed with the 12 Step and disease model.
So what’s my point? Well, to put it as gently – yet as bluntly – as I can, our Addiction to “being right” isn’t working. It’s actually hurting us. People who have “addictions” – and people who don’t – are confused about what to do. It’s blocking our willingness to see the value of each other’s perspective. It’s creating conflict, divisions and differences among people working in the same field. It’s creating fear among those who have problems and want help, as a recent email I received showed all too clearly:
In understanding additions, I often see such differing – and heated – discussions online when looking at weight-loss books, or even listening to the media. Some people say that obese people just eat too much; others say there’s [sic] psychological or spiritual reasons for weight problems. It hurts when I’ve struggled so long, and people, very cruelly and judgmentally, say all I need to do is eat less. – Tracey B.
What I’ve come to believe is that our conflicts are not only getting in the way of helping people but they might possibly be what is fueling our secondary addictions and stopping us from being fully free. And that’s why I’ve moved away from “who’s right and who’s wrong” to “we are ALL right,” and to begin looking for what we have in common.
Suppose we were to put our paradigms aside for a moment, and looked for what’s effective among all approaches? Regardless of how we define addiction or what caused these “unwanted habits” originally, what practices are we using that are actually effective in helping people reduce or prevent them? That’s what I’m committed to teaching and learning more about, so as to bring us together in our shared search for what works.
One of my dreams is to create a residential Power of Choice Wellness Centre, that embraces, offers, and custom-creates programs that welcome all view-points on “addiction”, while teaching - and demonstrating through how our staff treats people in reality - the fundamental principle that no path is superior, and all viewpoints are equally valid.
If that sounds altruistic, maybe it is. But it’s not just to be “nice” or kind to each other (though that certainly wouldn’t hurt). It’s about being willing to see the impact and cost that our conflicts and arguing are having on invalidating people. And it’s about finding the common patterns, issues, practices and solutions that can help anyone deal with any, and all, addictive or unwanted behaviors."
From the book, Addiction & Choice by Scott Gallagher