Willpower in Recovery: Too Little Or Too Much?

The old idea that addicts and alcoholics lack willpower is what keeps many from coming into the program. Plus, it is not even accurate. If anything, addicts and alcoholics have more willpower than the average person—we have to endure an inhuman amount of pain and suffering, and yet we keep drinking and using in the hope that it works out.

Still, many think that acknowledging this inability is somehow a weakness. Look: there are some things that simply are never going to happen. I am never going to be an astronaut, I am never going to win a chariot race, and I am never going to juggle chainsaws while walking from San Diego to the northeastern tip of Maine.

Does that mean I am somehow inferior? Maybe to some, but frankly, they are not the kind of people I would concern myself with in the first place.

Likewise with drinking and using. It is not a moral issue; it is not a reflection of our character, our upbringing, our socio-economic, cultural, or educational background; or anything else. It simply means that we do not mix well with mind-altering chemicals—nothing more, nothing less.

Try telling a diabetic that his or her inability to regulate his or her own glucose levels is a matter of willpower. It is not just wrong—it is pretty offensive, as well. Yet for some reason, when it comes to people regulating their own intake of chemicals, suddenly that is permissible? Yeah, right.

Here is the kicker: as is the case for diabetics, treatment exists for addicts and alcoholics as well. If we choose not to pursue that treatment, then we should not be surprised by what follows, either.

When we are given the opportunity to find recovery from our addiction, there are a lot of us who are not really too keen on doing what is necessary for our treatment. It is a classic example of willpower: “I will refuse the easier, softer, and more beneficial way so that I can do it myself, despite plenty of evidence that I cannot.” Really, what does that get us, though? More pain and hardship? I am an addict and alcoholic—I will do everything conceivable to avoid those things!

We can fret and wring our hands, lamenting the state of the world and our own lives, wallowing in self pity; or we can do what works and take care of ourselves. We are not going to save the world, and really, no one is asking us to. As one of our staff put it, we “just don’t want life to suck anymore,” and that is a sentiment that any addict or alcoholic can get behind.

Life does not suck, though. Our decisions do. Our willpower (that we are told we do not have) keeps us from finding recovery because we are insistent on doing it our way, when other ways not only exist, but have proven to be effective.

Willpower is not a bad thing—it is great! It keeps us motivated, gets us through some rough spots, and can serve us very well under certain circumstances. Like all tools, though, there are appropriate times and situations in which to use it.

Combatting addiction is not one of those.

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