When you go to Alcoholics Anonymous or you get caught in the recovery trap by going to rehab, you’re taught to see any and all substance use as “bad.” This perspective is held by both the substance user and those in the addiction-help role. In this system, there is no validity given to the reasoning behind one’s substance use. Heavy drug or alcohol use is assumed and judged to be a depraved habit that’s involuntary. These judgments have deep, negative ramifications. They engender shame and a negative self-image for the user and become a tool of tyrannical power that the “professional” can wield on the vulnerable who are in treatment. Worse yet is when the user takes on this addict or alcoholic identity and feels as if there is no real long term solution to their issues, thusly becoming a minion of the treatment and recovery society. Hopelessness and depression become their norm. This becomes a vicious cycle of feeling shameful with active use, and then cycling into a remorse filled recovery stage, followed by more use. Once this cycle takes hold, the beliefs that fuel it become harder and harder to change.
Having personally experienced this miserable cycle and having watched tens of thousands of others do the same, myself and the other authors of The Freedom Model decided to throw out the judgment cycle that is counterproductive when helping people with substance use issues. (This decision was made in the early aughts.) Even with this transition goal in mind, it took us a long time to let go of the recovery shaming that was a part of every addiction-help model at the time (and still is in most all of the addiction programs around the globe). But once we fully accepted that personal autonomy was real, and that as a helper, we had no real control over the minds of those we were helping, we realized how much more effective we could be if we allowed people to discuss their reasoning behind their use with no fear of being judged. For these folks, to be able to accurately and openly discuss the benefits they personally saw in getting drunk and high, the lack of judgment we demonstrated was massively freeing and was extremely helpful.
Rapid progress in an honest environment like this became the norm. Where in the past there was moral judgment, implied quiet coercion, and the “tyranny of experts” at play, this was replaced with open discussion based in reality, facts and valid research. For our students and guests to be able to discuss where they were mentally and emotionally without being judged, the conversations became easy, free flowing, and productive. Shame, guilt, pain and defensiveness became a thing of the past. Once these emotions are cleared away, the individual is able to easily ascertain whether their current habit brings better fulfillment than a reduction in use or abstinence.
In Chapter 13 of The Freedom Model for Addictions, we talk about a non-judgmental approach in more detail:
“Because of the difficulty of discerning tone from text, some may think our non-judgment and definition of success is a passive aggressive tactic. To some, it reads as if we’re saying, “Go ahead and get high all you want; you might die, but hey that’s no skin off our backs.” Make no mistake, we hold no such attitude. As researchers who have lived through similar issues as our readers, we empathize and know firsthand the pain involved in the hobbled beliefs recovery ideology wields. And of course, we surely don’t want anyone to face an untimely death, but we also hold the deep conviction that acting by one’s own judgment, and pursuing one’s own vision of happiness is the most direct path to a fulfilling life. We also know that each person’s autonomy allows them the privilege of doing exactly what they want to do, and that we have absolutely no control over their wishes or their lifestyle. Please know that there is no hidden, backdoor agenda; we’re fully cognizant of our role and that is to present factual information to you. If that seems uncaring, or passive aggressive in any way to you, you are misreading our motives and the way in which we are trying to help you. In the final analysis, we know you are fully capable of changing, and of experiencing true freedom. We also know that if you weren’t trying to do what you think you “should do” according to norms, shame, and coercion, then you’d be that much closer to finding out what will make you happiest, and truly what you want to do.
We also wouldn’t want others to tell us how to live, and what we should or shouldn’t want, therefore, we don’t do that to you. And again, we certainly can’t judge what a worthwhile life is for anyone other than ourselves. Take for example the soldier who eagerly goes into battle, knowing death is likely. If he does die, who is to say he should’ve done differently, or that his life was a waste? If he felt the risk of death was worth it, then it was worth it to him. Same goes for the extreme skier who knows the perils he faces, yet says, “I wouldn’t be happy if I gave up this sport. If I die, so be it, I will have died doing what makes me happy.” Or what about the rebellious rock star with a big drug habit? Some have died young. Is anyone to say whether their drug use was “worth it” other than they themselves? We think not. They may have thought that living big and dying young is better than living conservatively to a ripe old age. They are right – for themselves; because each person defines their own pursuit of happiness.
What’s more, heavy substance use doesn’t preclude success in other areas of life. Many of those recklessly partying rock stars have actually lived to ripe old ages and had many amazing accomplishments along the way. Who is anyone to say they “should” have lived their lives differently? How do you define what should make others happy? Saying somebody shouldn’t use drugs for happiness is like saying somebody shouldn’t collect comic books, shouldn’t be a vegan, shouldn’t “waste their time” watching football, shouldn’t love the person they love. These are all matters of personal taste and preference.”
When people read this, they begin to realize that we are serious when we say, “We won’t judge you. Let’s discuss things openly.”
So if you are ready for a non-judgmental approach to solving an addiction, The Freedom Model may be just what you are looking for. It’s easy to clear away the guilt and shame that’s clouding your reasoning when you realize you get high and/or drunk for the perceived benefits you see in that experience, and more importantly, that you can change that perception, and move past addiction quite easily.