Can people diagnosed with the various addictions (or Substance Use Disorders, in modern parlance) choose to change their condition? At Baldwin Research Institute, we’ve been saying they can choose to change for 30 years now.

But the addiction treatment and recovery industry says they can’t choose to change. Instead, they say that addicts and alcoholics have a disease that robs them of their ability to choose. They tell people with substance use problems that they are powerless. This message rubs many people the wrong way. It strikes most as dis-empowering. That’s why so many have flocked to our programs over the years. They don’t want to be passive disease victims waiting for a miracle cure. They want to take their life by the reins and make a change.

The treatment industry has noticed that in the choice versus powerlessness debate, choice is beginning to win. They’ve changed their rhetoric slightly. Now when a committed treatment supporter encounters the criticism that their disease model persuades people to become passive victims/patients, they have a clever response ready to go.They’ll reply by saying something like “we’re not saying addicts have no choices; they must choose to get treatment for their disease, choose to seek support and aftercare, choose to comply with treatment, choose to take their medications, choose to avoid triggers, choose to address their underlying conditions, etc.”

This is a complete dodge of the criticism. By this logic, you could say that cancer victims “have a choice” as well. They can choose to get treatment, choose to follow their doctors orders, choose to take their medications, etc. But we all know that cancer victims can’t choose to stop having cancer. Whether their cancer goes away or not is up to whether the medications and other medical technologies work. So the cancer patient is still, in a sense, rightfully passive.

People called addicts and alcoholics can choose to stop using substances. They choose to use, and they can choose not to use. This is direct choice, whereas the “choices” the treatment industry says we have over our condition are rather indirect – we can choose treatment they say, and hope that it magically stops us from lifting a bottle to our mouth and taking a swig.

Here’s another common rhetorical dodge made by the treatment and recovery industry: “nobody chooses to get addicted.” Of course that’s not what we, or any other serious choice proponent are saying. We don’t believe people choose to be addicts or alcoholics, nor that anyone is really “addicted” in the treatment industry’s sense of the word where substance use becomes involuntary. “Addicted,” “addict,” and “alcoholic” are all terms that represent the myths of the addiction treatment and recovery industry. We don’t subscribe to them. Nobody chooses to be, or even “is” these things.

Instead we recognize the truth that people freely choose to use substances every step of the way. We recognize the truth that over 90% of “alcoholics” and over 95% of “addicts” eventually quit or reduce their substance use habits to non-problematic levels. They do this even though 80% of them never get treatment. They do this as a natural course of life, as they realize the substances aren’t really making them happy anymore. They do this relatively quickly with most drugs – half of people diagnosed with stimulant, cocaine, tranquilizer, and opioid addictions get over their problems in 5 years or less. Most start young and choose to change before they’re 30 years old. They change their minds about what they want and what will help them to get it, and they choose differently. It’s not that they chose to be addicted during this time and then chose not to be addicted. They chose to use these drugs heavily for as long as it was what they believed they needed, and then they stopped choosing it when they stopped believing they needed it.

The only thing that can make it harder to make these choices is to become convinced that you are incapable of making these choices. That is exactly what the treatment industry aims to do as it’s first goal. In 12 Step programs, the first step is to “admit” you are “powerless” over substances and addiction. And even in treatment programs that aren’t entirely 12 Step based, the main goal is to convince you that you have a brain disease that has “hijacked your free will.” If you disagree with this idea, they tell you that you are “in denial” – a symptom of the disease that makes you resistant to the idea that you have a disease! These mind games have destroyed many lives.

It’s hard not to believe this nonsense when people in white coats with fancy letters behind their names feed it to you all day long, and tell you you’re crazy if you disagree. It’s hard not to buy this recovery mythology when you spend your days in meetings and group counseling sessions with others who have been made completely hopeless by it. You become socialized with “powerless” people, and accept that you must be one of them too. You become a passive victim, waiting for treatment professionals to fix you. Worse, you become convinced that there is no fix available, and accept that all you can do is learn to “cope” with your disease of addiction.

When you’ve reached that state, you’re in what we call “the treatment and recovery trap.” The only way out of the trap is by learning the truth. That’s what we provide with the Freedom Model. The truth is that unlike the cancer victim, the “addict or alcoholic” has many direct choices they can make to solve their problems:

  • You can choose to embrace the fact that you are choosing every time you use
  • You can choose to use or not use
  • You can choose to drink less tonight
  • You can choose to switch to a less dangerous drug
  • You can choose to question whether drugs are much fun anymore
  • You can choose to question whether drugs are exciting at this point in your life
  • You can choose to question whether your drug really relieves your depression
  • You can choose to question whether your drug really relieves your anxiety and stress
  • You can choose to question whether your drug really relieves your anger
  • You can choose to investigate whether you can feel more pleasure and more happiness without drugs
  • You can choose to stop making excuses for your drug use, and own it
  • You can choose to stop for negative reasons (“I have to stop or I’ll end up in jail”), or you can change your approach and choose to stop for positive reasons (“I can be happier without drugs”)
  • You can choose to focus on the benefits of quitting or moderating
  • You can choose to see better uses of your time and energy
  • You can choose to see drugs as a placebo you’ve been using to deal with life problems
  • You can choose to let go of the comfort of the familiar use of drugs
  • You can choose to embrace the exciting change of experiencing life without drugs
  • You can choose to believe that you have a new chapter of life where you deserve better than what you’re getting out of drugs

These are all direct choices that directly affect our behavior, and the way we feel about substances. There are many more potential choices. Many of these include choosing to believe certain things. These choices become incredibly happy and joyful when you have the knowledge to back up your belief in them. That is what we provide in the Freedom Model.

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