Is Addiction a Choice?

Dear Edahn,

I'm curious on your thoughts about addiction as a disease vs. choice. My life went down some unexpected places and I found myself trying to escape. After a couple of rehabs, and various 12 step programs, I realized that wasn't the path for me. It's hard to see that a blanket treatment works for all, whether its food, gambling or drugs. Cognitive-behavioral therapy would seem to be a better path. Ultimately fixing your path, for me it's finding success in a career. I'm working on it as I have a tendency for self sabotage on jobs. So not following my usual tendencies has worked out so far. I just never could handle the "powerless" aspect of the disease model. 

PEOPLE ALWAYS HAVE a choice to make their lives better. You may not have control over the contents of your body and mind (including your urges), but you certainly have control over how you see and respond to those urges. That applies for all addictions.

To break it down, you're sitting there on your couch and you're like man, I wish I was [fill in the blank]. High? Drunk? Playing a video game? Watching TV? Scrolling on Instagram? Meeting hot single moms in your area? The impulse isn't consciously chosen; it's the product of years of conditioning. (Lifetimes if you subscribe to Buddhist reincarnation.) That's what karma really is, it's not an invisible X-Man.

But there's nothing that forces you to seek out that reward. There's pressure, sure. And you might experience more pressure than others in some particular domain. But that doesn't mean you're compelled to do it. That's loser talk. That's giving-up-your-independence talk. That's not-taking-responsibility-for-your-life talk.

You mentioned self-sabotage. I can relate. I will say a few things about that. One, don't dismiss the power of your mind to figure out what's at the bottom of your habits, impulses, and addictions. Don't be satisfied with what other people pass off as scientific explanation or psychology. Both, in my opinion, have weaknesses in their explanatory power. 

Science tends to think explanations end with biology (like the disease model). I've always found that strange since our biology is just the physical mirror image of what's happening in the mind. One doesn't cause the other. It's the same thing. Oh well. Psychology has different limitations. The point is, don't let that be the end of your understanding. Use your own experience and mind to look carefully and openly at what's going on in your mind and body to see what's really going on. What is it seeking? How's it operating?

If it's self-sabotage, then maybe you're getting some kind of payoff through that process. Maybe you're relieving the stress of feeling judged by others. Maybe you lose a part of yourself in trying to please others that you regain when you're alone. Or maybe you regain in a moment of deep depression. Maybe the addiction is to self-hatred. The mind is tricky, and the things it finds satisfying (its addictions) are not always obvious. But the more you study it, the more you'll start to realize how it ties to other parts of your life. You'll also get better at recognizing when it starts to creep into your experience. 

The next big step is figuring out how to respond to all that content (your urges to do whatever) that comes up. Is it taking a walk? Letting it pass through you? Ignoring it? Laughing at it ironically? Giving it a big, resounding NOPE? You're already trying to figure that out. I'm a big proponent of continuing to experiment and see what happens.

Ultimately, we all have the same fundamental job in life: to learn to perceive our karma--i.e., our habitual, addictive patterns of thinking and feeling--instead of becoming it. We're all struggling with addiction, and we all have the power to choose what to do with it.