The Positive Drive Principle (PDP): the principle that humans will always act to move in the direction where they perceive the greatest happiness.  The Freedom Model for Addictions, pg 142

Upon hearing it for the first time, many people fundamentally understand the Positive Drive Principle. However, they become skeptical when it comes to heavy substance use and addiction. The truth is, costly behaviors are still chosen behaviors. In other words, just because a behavior comes with a high cost and/or high risk doesn’t mean it’s not motivated by the individual’s pursuit of happiness. While this statement is a fact, it remains an unpopular idea with respect to alcohol and drug use and specifically heavy use, which is better known as addiction.

How many times have you heard statements like, “She puts a needle in her arm everyday and steals to keep that habit going. There’s no way she is choosing to be an addict!” When looking at it from an outside perspective, as someone who doesn’t use, it seems completely plausible that she is no longer making a conscious decision to get high.  You see the problems her use is causing in her life, and you can’t imagine she would choose to keep using. I mean really, who would want to live a life of crime to support a drug habit? But when you stop looking at her choices from your own limited perspective, and do the research as we have, it turns out that in reality, many people do choose heavy substance use in spite of the high costs they incur.

Three Parts to Every High

There are three parts to a drug taking episode. There is the front-end – the motivation to get high, the middle – the act of getting high, and then there is the back-end – the trade offs (costs) of getting high. When third party, non-users such as family and friends of a substance user, observe the “addict” or “alcoholic”, they focus almost entirely on the consequences and trade-offs that come after a drug/alcohol use episode. They, then, do a reverse analysis, which causes their confusion and a complete misunderstanding of the problem. Please allow me to explain.

Here is the specific order of events that make up a drug taking episode.

  1. The substance user desires and seeks substances for their own personal reasons.
  2. Next, they use substances.
  3. Lastly, they pay a price for the drug taking episode which can range from just being mildly hung over to more serious costs, such as getting arrested, getting injured, overdosing or becoming very ill, or damaging an important relationship.

All drug taking happens in this specific order because users are driven at the outset by their desire for happiness which they believe the use of substances will provide. But here is where things get murky; the non-user observes drug taking episodes in the opposite order, and this reverse observation and analysis makes the drug taking seem illogical, outrageous and involuntary.

The Reverse Analysis

The first two phases of getting drunk or high contain all the benefits the user seeks. It’s the pleasurable part. These two phases are the proactive pursuit of happiness by the user; this is positive drive principle in action. The last phase, however, can be painful. It often contains some regret, guilt and physical and emotional pain. These are the costs, consequences or trade-offs of the binge. All choices, even those that have initial, up front benefits, have a trade off somewhere. In substance use, the upside is the high, the costs are the delayed consequences that invariably come downstream of the initial benefits of being high.

Unlike the substance user that focuses on the initial upsides of being high, the last portion of a drug taking episode is the phase that most third party onlookers tend to focus on, and this is a real problem. By focusing on the consequences, the non-user dismisses that the substance user initially chose the drug taking episode because they wanted the benefits of being high. It is easy for the non-user to forget this because the consequences for heavy use habits are so profoundly obvious; wrecked cars, destroyed marriages, financial and legal tension, real health concerns, etc. These costs are too obvious to ignore, and tend to completely obscure any upsides that the act of using had for the user.

It makes perfect sense that the negative consequences are the focal point for third party onlookers. In their emotional plea for the substance user to stop, the initial motive the user had for their last bender is completely ignored by those who care for the user. By focusing on the price their friend has paid for their substance use habits, the reality that the user actually enjoys his/her drug use is taken out of the analysis. This has a very serious unintended consequence – if you ignore why someone makes a choice, it becomes very easy to say they never had a choice.

Like any problem that is need of a solution, only a thorough factual analysis can provide a full picture, and thus lead to the truth. And it is only in knowing the truth that one can truly help another who is suffering from their choices and behaviors. This includes substance use and all that goes with it. When onlookers, which includes addiction treatment professionals, ignore the motive behind an individual’s substance use, they are ignoring half of the facts in their attempt at understanding what’s going on. This makes their pleas for the substance user’s health and safety empty, and quite frankly, annoying to the substance user. It’s not as if the user needs to be told that they are screwing up. Let’s face it –they’re living out the nightmare of the consequences. Being reminded of this over and over in emotional pleas, guilt tactics and fear mongering only makes getting drunk or high that much more appetizing, not less!

The Front-End is where the Answers Are

The answer to the addiction problem lies in knowing that regardless of the costs of heavy use, when a substance user uses, they do so because on the front-end (the first two phases listed above), they are seeking personal benefits of using the substance – every single time. It’s the positive drive principle in action. In everything we do as human beings, we are always motivated by the pursuit of happiness; this is without exception. While the onlooker is predominantly focused on the end result of a drug-taking episode, the user is always focused on the benefits of a potential bender at the outset. Substance users know they will have to deal with the inevitable trade offs later, and they are willing to do so.

To add to the confusion and frustration, the non-user is typically not attracted to altering their own state of mind, and so not only do they focus on the horrible consequences of use, but they also may judge the act of getting high as foolish, childish and a waste of time and money. Many people don’t see any benefits to getting drunk or high. This egocentric point of view adds to the idea that an addict must be “doing something they don’t really want to do.”

The Communication Gap Gets Closed

Simply put, the substance user focuses on parts one and two, and accepts part three of a drug taking episode as a necessary evil of getting what they want on the front end. The non-user focuses on part three, and can barely comprehend parts one and two. It is only when the non-user fully understands the Positive Drive Principle – the truth that all humans move in the direction of their personal pursuits of happiness (and that includes choosing to use substances heavily and habitually), that they will understand why the consequences of the user’s habit are worth it to them. And while we can all agree that heavy substance use can be costly, with an understanding of the positive drive principle, we all, substance users and non-users alike, can understand that substance use is always a voluntary behavior chosen for the perceived benefits.

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