Renouncing Addictive Behaviour

The following excerpt is adapted from the book ‘Higher and Friendly Powers – Transforming Addiction and Suffering’ (1) by Peg O’Connor.

‘Renouncing addiction to alcohol or other substances and behaviour excludes hedging one’s bets. One cannot both become a new person and hold onto old ways of doing and being. Nor can a person genuinely renounce (give up, relinquish, surrender etc) a behaviour or attitude just because it is what another person wants or attempts to compel. No one can change the consciousness of another person.  

Often people who are trying to stop using alcohol or other drugs hedge their bets or leave themselves an out, a layer of protection from complete abstinence. As William James says:

“A drunkard, or a morphine or cocaine addict, offers himself to be cured. He appeals to a doctor to wean him from his enemy, but he dares not face blank abstinence….Everyone knows of cases of this incomplete and ineffective desire for reform….To really give up anything on which we have relied, to give up definitively, “for good and all” and forever, signifies one of those radical alterations of character….In it the inner man rolls over into an entirely different position of equilibrium, lives in a new center of energy from this time on, and the turning point and hinge of all such [psychic change] seems usually to involve the sincere acceptance of certain nakedness and destitutions.”

Leaving an out, keeping some drugs in reserve “just in case,” will not bring about the sort of transformation of character that one professes to want. One’s actions and wishes are not congruent. Fully wanting inconsistent or even contradictory things is not uncommon with people struggling with addiction. The more divided a person’s self is the more difficult it is for one’s actions and wishes to be congruent. Some part of a struggling addict may really want to stop using and may even actively believe that he can, but other parts of the self have no desire to stop using. This internal division is a hallmark of addiction. Furthermore, a person who tries to make such a big change but keeps an alleged safeguard in place may find himself moving further along the misery spectrum.. The consequences of his actions will continue to become more severe, and his life more miserable. He may move deeper into pathological melancholy.

A person’s attitude matters enormously. Does he wish to stop using or does he will to stop using? Willing and willingness need to be distinguished from desiring and wishing. The latter two can lead to incredible frustration and suffering. The former make possible great transformation.

Problems begin when the reasons for something not being met or achieved have to do with me or what’s in my control. I can wish until the cows come home that I will get the promotion at work. I can wish that tomorrow I will stop drinking or using drugs. I can wish to the point of pining for the partner of my dreams.. Bigger problems follow when my wishes become wrapped in expectation. When expectation takes over, my focus becomes less on what I am doing and more on what I deserve. Putting on the “I deserve” lens renders us unable to see clearly the relationship between our inactions and our desires not being met.

There’s a good reason why many people in recovery define an expectation as a future resentment. That resentment is almost always directed at other people or more vaguely, “society.” We fail to recognize that our inactions in many cases play an important role in our desires not being met.. Willing necessarily requires action. This is what distinguishes wishing from willing. In most cases, willing is a necessary condition for us to realize our desires. If I want the promotion, then I better work hard and finish my projects by the specified deadlines. If I want to stop drinking or using, then I need to take some action such as driving home a different way to avoid the liquor store or the place where I usually buy drugs.

Willing is a necessary but not sufficient condition to realize desires. Each of us has plenty of examples of acting to realize our desires in ways that fall short, go haywire, or bring about the exact opposite of what we want. That I will get a promotion is not simply a matter of my will alone. Too many other factors beyond my control are at play. There may be people who are far more qualified, or equally hard working, or the job description is not a match for my experience. Stopping drinking and using is not fully a matter of my will; I may need medications to curb cravings. I may need a much stronger support network than I presently have. When I assume that realizing my desires is completely a matter of my will, frustration and overflowing resentment usually follow. When we will too much and try to force the world to bend or we will in the wrong direction—for example, willing to control something far beyond our control—we become unhappy. The solution is not to stop willing since that throws us back to the unhappiness that comes from unrealized wishes. Rather, we need to recognize what is in our control and what is not and then calibrate our expectations and act accordingly. We may need to be willing to act even or especially when we don’t know what the results will be. In other words, we may need faith.

Acceptance and renunciation go together; they are flip sides of the same coin. Acceptance is the recognition that a situation is bigger than I alone can handle or comprehend. Acceptance involves activity and agency. Acceptance requires that my actions are responsive to changing realities as well as the recognition that my actions cannot guarantee the outcomes I want. Many external factors are beyond my control. What I can control is my attitude. This, too, involves a choice. By acting in deliberate and responsive ways, I may change both myself and my reality. We have no problem with acceptance in the vast majority of our lives. Yet, when it comes to quitting alcohol or drugs, we think that it should be within our control. Control is often about holding tightly to something—if I can just hold on tightly enough, I can retain control.

Renunciation is about loosening that grip. Instead of clutching something familiar but harmful, I can reach toward something unfamiliar but helpful.. In the process, I may become a little bit more tolerant of uncertainty. Uncertainty can be terrifying, which is why people would rather stick with the devil they know than face the unknown. Each of us has an uncertainty threshold.. A person’s uncertainty threshold is directly related to their faith. I am using “faith” in a much broader sense than belief in religious entities or a wider universal order. Faith can be about anything: I can have faith in institutions (I have faith the courts will uphold the rule of law), other people (I have faith this person will keep her promise), or myself (I have faith I will always do my best to be honest). The hallmark of faith, according to William James, is to believe in and act from possibility. Faith is a willingness to live in possibility and act on the maybes. It is the willingness to act as if what you do makes a difference.’

1. ‘Higher and Friendly Powers – Transforming Addiction and Suffering’, pp.119-126, By Peg O’Connor, Ph.D.

An expansive alternative for those who have struggled with the “higher power” of AA’s 12-step program, Higher and Friendly Powers offers a sense of human decency, moral ideals, and even a better version of oneself. In Higher and Friendly Powers, Peg O’Connor addresses an audience much like herself: those in recovery who have struggled with the Christian-centric God at the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous. She brings our attention to a little-known fact: the term “higher power,” a touchstone in the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, was coined by William James, philosopher, psychologist, and intellectual giant of the early 20th century. By acting as our personal field guide through the world of William James, Peg shows that “higher power” as James conceived it is far more expansive than we might imagine. The book, which combines Peg’s deep personal wisdom with James’s adventurous intellect, has the power to transform the way we live.

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