Where Does “Choice” Come In? Almost every authority I’ve ever read – apart from the ones who see addiction strictly as a disease that requires chemical treatment – says that choice at some level (whether conscious or unconscious) shapes our addictions. For some, it’s our choices about the activities we become involved in, the environments we live in, or the people we hang out with. For others, it’s the lifestyles we engage in, the thoughts we choose, or the ways we try to deal with our underlying feelings.
Even the founders of AA, who said that chronic alcoholism (addiction) is a “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body,” believed that we are not ultimately powerless to change. In fact, their program was based on our ability to make certain decisions and choose to practice certain behaviors and ways of thinking (i.e. the 12 steps) that would give alcoholics (and addicts) renewed control over their lives.
If both addictions and habits are our ways of coping with, adjusting to, or finding happiness in life, then at some level choice enters into them. It might be the result of “bad judgment,” as CAMH referred to drug abuse. It could be dealt with by “turning our will over to a higher power” as AA instructs (which is also a choice) or using “modern psychological skill-building techniques” as Marc Kern teaches. It might be turning around our “faulty belief system… [that] it is possible to be perfect” or that “life should be without pain and require no effort,” as Washton and Boundy said; or helping “more people to have the resources, values and environments necessary for living productive lives” as Stanton Peele described it. Each one involves both choice, a new way of thinking and a change in behavior.
Jeffrey Schaler, Ph.D., in his book called Addiction is a Choice, says: “As [people] come to believe that addiction has more to do with the environments they live in than with the drugs they use (a clear indication of research), they may further realize they have the power to change those environments to help themselves.”
It’s useful to think back to what Chris Prentiss wrote earlier in The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure, that “most of us are constantly modifying our moods and physical sensations [with] substances and behavior patterns” such as drinking coffee, eating sweets or going shopping. The goal of these choices, he says, is to create an inner “balance.” He then adds: “When our body, mind and spirit are not in alignment, we consciously or subconsciously medicate with food, alcohol, drugs, sex, television, and other diversions to forget or suppress the symptoms of imbalance.”
Finally, I’d like to return to Dr. William Glasser – who developed both “reality therapy” and “choice theory,” and has some controversial views (at least among psychiatrists) on issues like personal choice, personal responsibility and personal transformation.
Glasser believes there are actually two types of addictions: Negative and Positive. Negative addictions, like alcohol or heroin, “always weaken and often destroy us.” These are based (as mentioned above) on a lack of love and feelings of worthlessness, judgment and guilt. Positive addictions, on the other hand – which can include such practices as meditation or running – “strengthen us and make our lives more satisfying.” “A positive addiction increases your mental strength and is the opposite of a negative addiction, which seems to sap the strength from every part of your life except in the area of the addiction.” Positive addicts, he says, “are almost always stronger,” and “live with more confidence, more creativity, and more happiness, and usually in much better health.”
“The positive addict enjoys his addiction but it does not dominate his life. From it he gains mental strength which he uses to help himself accomplish whatever he tries to do more successfully. Unlike a negative addict, who is satisfied completely to live for his addiction, to the exclusion of everything else, a positive addict uses his extra strength to gain more love and more worth, more pleasure, more meaning, more zest from life in general. Positive addiction is especially valuable because it is a way in which anyone by himself can increase his strength."
The key to positive addictions is that it is a choice – an alternative way to find happiness. In fact, Glasser says that “it is possible to become addicted to any physical or mental activity,” if you fulfill certain criteria and achieve a particular state of mind (which he calls the “PA state”) regularly, which he describes in his book. “While the activity itself [like running] may be grueling or boring, it causes a pleasurable mental effect while it goes on, and on after, that makes the whole experience so pleasing it is addicting.”
Positive addictions aren’t as easy as drinking or picking up a cigarette, for instance. Glasser says it can take six months to a year of activity, one hour every day, to develop a strength-giving addiction. The activity must usually be done alone, with no demands, striving for excellence, or self-criticism. But in the experience of millions of joggers, bicycle riders, exercisers, meditators and others, including Glasser, they work.
From the book Addiction & Choice, by Scott Gallagher