When we say in The Freedom Model that people will change their substance use behaviors and habits based on what they feel will make them happier, many people mistakenly think that we’re saying they will be elated or feel joy in the decision to change their substance use. That’s because the word happiness often conjures up images of joy, elation and careless abandon.  When we talk about happiness in The Freedom Model’s Non 12 Step Program, we are talking about relative happiness that falls on a spectrum. And that is why throughout The Freedom Model we use the word, happier. If you picture happiness as a ladder that goes from pure joy and elation at the top to absolute despair and hopelessness at the bottom, then being happier for some people may be just one rung up the ladder from complete despair.

Here is an example from my own personal experience. At the end of my heavy drinking and drug using phase of my life, I felt completely hopeless and out of control. I had burned nearly all my bridges with family and friends, and I truly believed I was an evil person who didn’t deserve happiness or joy in my life. So one night after a particularly horrendous week of heavy drinking I decided I wouldn’t drink. I knew I needed some time to dry out. I wasn’t elated or even mildly happy about the decision, but physically I was spent. Even with as bad as I felt, I continued denying myself something that I wanted.

Not drinking felt truly difficult for me because alcohol had become my only comfort — it was all I had left, but in that moment of choosing not to drink and taking some time away from it, the truth was I wanted to not drink more than I wanted to drink. I wasn’t swearing off alcohol forever. My future actually didn’t factor into my decision at all. I was in a deep pit of despair, but I knew in heart that drinking wasn’t going to make me feel better, not even temporarily as it hadn’t in a very long time.

So I spent a couple days in bed, feeling sick and full of self-pity. I remember thinking I was never going to be happy again. Whether drinking or not drinking, I believed I was destined to a lifetime of struggle and personal turmoil. I was an ‘addict’ who was also diagnosed with mental illness, and I took on that persona just as everyone told me that I would. But as you read this story, it’s important to shift your focus from the sadness and despair I was feeling, and realize that in spite of all this, I wasn’t drinking. I had stopped drinking on my own, all alone, at the very depths of my despair.

Even in that despair I had come to the conclusion that drinking heavily had nothing more to offer me. In the weeks and months that followed I had thoughts of drinking — some would even be classified as strong cravings, but I’m unsure how much of that was actually habitual thinking and how much was due to the fact that I had started going to AA meetings because that’s what I thought I had to do to stay sober. In Alcoholics Anonymous, I was told that every day would be hard. I was told not to trust myself and my own mind and this caused me a lot of unnecessary anxiety.

Because of what I was learning in Alcoholics Anonymous I kept looking for those triggers — I kept analyzing what the hell could possibly make me drink against my will. I ruminated on drinking when I was anxious, depressed, angry or restless which was nearly every single day in that first year “sober” but still, I didn’t drink, and truth be told when it came right down to it, I didn’t want to drink or I would have. Please know, during those first few years, I suffered loss and I grieved; I had periods of prolonged success and celebrated; I fell in love, got married and nearly split up with my husband more than a few times. I started a family and built a career; changed jobs; felt love and elation; and at times, I felt completely overwhelmed, lonely, misunderstood, and unworthy. And during my lowest points there were no serious thoughts of drinking because I knew alcohol wouldn’t make me feel better — not when I was down, and not when I was up. I finally saw alcohol for what it was, a liquid that at best might make me a bit sleepy and off balance if I drank enough.

You see, I remembered feeling depressed and suicidal at times while drunk — so I knew it wasn’t effective at helping me to feel happier when I was down. I also remembered feeling happy, giddy and funny when drunk — but I remembered feeling all those things while sober. I remembered feeling intense rage while drunk and getting in a fist fight and ending up in the hospital. But I had felt plenty of rage while sober too and yes, I had fist fought while stone, cold sober. All these things were fully and completely me — with or without alcohol. When I looked back honestly on my experiences drinking heavily, I couldn’t see any way that it helped me do anything I wanted to do. I couldn’t see any actual benefits of heavy drinking or intoxication. And when I thought about how much I actually liked it, the truth is it had gotten pretty boring.

In spite of what I was being told in meetings those first few years, not drinking became an incredibly easy choice to make. And it turns out I could and should trust my own thinking, because if I don’t have control over what I’m thinking, feeling and doing, then who the hell does? Who is pulling my strings if not me? It’s all up to me: what I like and dislike; what I want and don’t want; what I feel and don’t feel; what I fear; what I value; how I behave and what I invest in, in my life.

So when you learn The Freedom Model, and you learn that people do what they believe will make them happier, please know we’re not saying that to make a change you’ll need to feel giddy, elated or joyous in your decision to make a change in your substance use. You certainly might, but maybe all you need is to become open to the possibility that you’ll feel a little less crappy than you feel using heavily. Maybe feeling happier for you means that you’ll have one evening without feeling judged by your loved ones. Or perhaps you’ll feel slightly happier that you followed through on your initial desire to not drink or use drugs at that moment. The point is, happiness is completely relative and subjective. It’s unique to each person, and becoming happier is always just one decision away.