The Myth Of “Loss of Control” As A Scientific Truth Of Addiction

All About Addiction aims to be a place where an open conversation about issues relevant to addiction can be discussed. To that end, the following is a piece from Christopher Russell that challenges the notion that people in some way lose control over their behavior suggesting instead that their seemingly compulsive behavior is actually volitional. Look for an upcoming post featuring Dr. Jaffe’s views on some of the points made by Christopher.

The Myth of “Loss of Control” – By Christopher Russell

Popular wisdom among addiction neuroscientists states that while initial drug use is voluntary, with repeated drug consumption the consumer moves closer to a critical, tipping point separating non-addicted from addicted drug use (e.g. Leshner, 1997). At the passing of this critical point, believed to reside in drug-induced changes to one or more brain sites and gene expression, the individual is argued to lose his ability to control his use of drugs thereafter. Beyond this point, drug use is now something which happens to the individual, compelled by pharmacological causes, not something the individual does for phenomenological reasons.

This notion of a physical “loss of control” as an explanation for why some people continue to use drugs has prevailed as the core hypothesis of the view of addiction as a progressive disease for the past 200 years (Levine, 1978) and today remains largely accepted by the general public as a taken-for-granted, scientifically-proven truth of addiction. Furthermore, the primary use of the word addiction has come to describe a particular set of behaviours which have a causal basis operating irrespective of the will of the individual (Davies, 1996), with “addicts” used as the term to distinguish those who are no longer able to control their drug use from those who are still able to control their drug use.

But why has this belief become so ubiquitous among the general public when the neuroscience community has produced no evidence which is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that certain individuals are physically unable to stop using their drug? Additionally, no evidence has been provided which warrants the conclusion that a critical, tipping point exists in the brain at which a person shifts from non-addicted to addicted drug use, the point at which the “loss of control” is assumed to occur. Both beliefs remain hypotheses for which there is as yet no evidence, however, the public  understanding tends to be that these arguments have been long since proven as basic truths of addiction. What we do know and can show today is that some people find quitting a drug to be easy, a bit hard, quite hard, or extremely difficult. But evidence of the difficulty to exercise control should not be confused with an inability to exercise control, no matter how much the evaluation “I can’t stop” feels like a literal truth about our capabilities. This 3-part blog describes what we can and cannot show about the nature of drug use today and why the “loss of control” myth has prevailed as a “fact” of addiction for many people.

What we can and cannot show about addiction today

What we can and cannot show about the nature of addiction today is summed up by Akers (1991), a sociologist:

“The problem is that there is no independent way to confirm that the “addict” cannot help himself and therefore the label is often used as a tautological explanation of the addiction. The habit is called an addiction because it is not under control but there is no way to distinguish a habit that is uncontrollable from one which is simply not controlled”.

In other words, we have only shown that some people do not stop using drugs, not that they cannot stop using drugs. The belief that some people cannot control their drug use will soon be shown to be a scientific fact, which comes from the moral judgment that people who do not stop when they say they really want to stop and who continue to use even to the detriment of other important things in life like work and relationships must be doing so not of their own will, but rather, their behaviour must be being compelled by a force outside of their will. In other words, the value-laden judgment is that no person in their right mind would voluntarily pursue this life; therefore, it fits with our view of a moral society to think that a drug “addict” is not a morally reprehensible person, but rather, must be using drugs against his will. But we must remember that to say “for why else would this poor person continue to use drugs?” is a value-laden statement about how we believe morally decent humans should behave. We should not infer that people cannot stop using drugs simply because we observe them not stopping. This may be useful information in itself, but is not evidence of a loss of control.

What medications do and do not do

Of course I do not deny that the use of medications like naltrexone, acamprosate and buprenorphine make it easier to forego certain drug use by blocking parts of the brain which motivate drug use. I would encourage people to use these medications if they find it helps them to not use other drugs. However, reducing the difficulty of quitting should not be confused with restoring the individual’s ability to quit as if this ability was at any point lost. Medications can help people quit using drugs and great strides are being made to manufacture medications which make the process of quitting easier to do and tolerate. However, these medications are not necessary for controlling drug use in the way heart medicines, radiation therapy, and insulin is necessary to stave off the mortal threats of heart conditions, cancers, and diabetes respectively.  These groups of people do not have agency over their conditions in the way drug users have over their behaviour.

No medication has yet been shown to restore a drug user’s free will to reject drugs. Additionally, manufacturing medications has long been considered by addiction researchers such as Bruce Alexander, Stanton Peele, and John Davies to be focusing on the thin edge of the wedge; too much focus on the uses of medication, they would argue, restricts the need for drug users and treatment providers to consider a broad social analysis of why drug use is so prevalent in our societies.

The paradox of “behaving responsibly” after control is lost

The paradox inherent to the belief that some drugs erode free will and others can restore free will is that a drug user is expected to exercise his control and his will to sign up for and attend treatment and take medication like a “responsible” person should do precisely when we believe he has been robbed of his control and will to make choices about drugs. This paradox is also seen in the myth that an “addict can only quit after he hits rock bottom” which is promulgated by the 12-step movement; we expect people to show free will to quit precisely when they are thought to be least free to make choices about drugs. In other words, we expect so much self-control from those we believe are no longer capable of self-control!

The defence of this paradox has tended to be along the line of “he has not lost his free will to control all parts of his life, only the parts which involve drugs”. In one of his early speeches in San Diego, June 6th, 1989, William Bennett, former National Drug Policy Director and drugs czar appointed by President George H. W. Bush, defined an “addict as a man or a woman whose power to exercise rational volition has been seriously eroded by drugs, and whose life is organised largely – even exclusively – around the pursuit and satisfaction of his addiction”. Bennett’s statement reflects a common logical contradiction. Organisation of one’s life around anything is a rational skill, a wilful act, often requiring complex cognitive operations to be performed such as planning for an event which is two and three moves ahead. As Schaler (1991: 237) notes, “If an addict’s power to exercise rational volition is seriously eroded, on what basis does the addict organise life?” Interestingly another curious medical-moral contradiction by Bennett was noted by Massing in his book The Fix. Massing said “Addicts were in his (Bennett’s) view irresponsible individuals lacking basic levels of self-control” (p195). If these people do lack the capacity for self-control, how can they be responsible for not showing self-control? If they were irresponsible, it is their irresponsibility which causes drug taking; self-control is irrelevant. Bennett appears to be of the view that addiction is a moral failing which the addict is helpless to prevent, which is logically impossible.

Instead, what we do observe is that drug users are actually very good at putting in place the conditions by which drugs can be obtained, and that many people who are diagnosed as drug addicts do show a great capacity for self-control of behaviours except for those involving drugs. So addiction neuroscience is not pursuing a neurobiological basis of free will, per se, just the basis of our free will to control drug use, which is an even harder premise to swallow.

Stay tuned for Dr Jaffe’s reponse and part 2 coming soon.

References:

Akers, R. L. (1991). Addiction; the troublesome concept. The Journal of Drug Issues, 21(4). 777-793. (only available in print form at present).

Davies, J. B. (1996). Reasons and causes: Understanding substance users’ explanations for their behaviour. Human Psychopharmacology, 11, 39-48.

Leshner, A. I. (1997). Addiction is a brain disease, and it matters. Science, 278,45−47.

Levine, H. (1978). The discovery of addiction: Changing conceptions of habitual drunkenness in America. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 39, 143−174.

Massing, M. (1998). The Fix. University of California Press Ltd; London England.

Schaler, J. A. (1991). Drugs and free will. Society, 28(6), 235-248.

Is anonymity the final shame frontier in addiction?

I’m a drug addict and a sex addict, and as far as I’m concerned, staying anonymous let’s me remain buried in shame, and a double life, that keeps me always one step ahead of those close to me. Did I say too much? Did I give away my secrets? None of those  questions matter when everyone knows everything there is to know about you. For a disease couched in anxiety, obsessions, and compulsive behavior, there’s very little that can be more triggering.

The difficulty of confessing addiction

Obviously I’m not naive to the consequences of confessing to others, and I’ve had a few very uncomfortable conversations that ended in people losing my number or superiors telling me they didn’t need to know. When it comes to the former, it’s their choice, and it might be a wise one, but having those who stay close to me know my truths keeps me safe by making me accountable and protects others from being hurt. And I can hurt with the best of them. Maybe that’s why when it comes to physician treated addicted physicians, there are no secrets, no anonymity, the family and employers are made part of the process. Some notable addiction providers (like Journey Healing Centers and others) have programs that explicitly involve the family in the treatment process as well. Getting the secrets out works to break away from the shame.

We’re only as sick as our secrets, even together

On an organizational level, I understand the need for anonymity to avoid having any specific member represent the group. But that logic only holds when everyone is told to remain anonymous. Otherwise, the entire group represents itself, which is, if nothing else, truthful. If one person slips, relapses, or goes into a homicidal rampage, it only makes the rest of us look bad if no one knows that millions others are “the rest of us.”

Over and over I hear people talk about the secret of their addiction and the lies they have to tell to cover up their shameful acts. Unfortunately, that only contributes to the stigma of addicts and makes it all the more difficult  to get some perspective on the actual problem: We do things we don’t want to over and over regardless of how much they hurt us or those around us

If you’ve read anything on this site, you know that I believe in many factors that contribute to addiction, including biology, environment, experience, and their interactions. Still, when it comes down to it, the misunderstanding of addiction is often our number one problem. And anonymity does nothing to reduce that misunderstanding.

How we can make a difference

Media portrayals only exacerbate the problem as they show us stories of addicted celebrities who are struggling but then leave the story behind before any recovery occurs. That way we only get to see the carnage but have to look pretty hard to see anything more.

But we can change all this with a small, courageous, action. We can let those around us know that we’re addicts, that we’re doing our best to stop our compulsive behavior and that we want them to hold us accountable. If we slip, we can get back up because we don’t compound the shame of a relapse with lies we tell, and those around us know that even a relapse can be overcome because they’ve seen those examples over and over in all the other “confessed” addicts around.

It’s time to leave the addiction “closet” and start living. We may not be able to change who we are easily, but we can change the way we go about living and make it easier on ourselves and on others. By breaking our anonymity, we can help assuage our own shame and let everyone know that addiction is everywhere and that it can be successfully overcome.

Just a thought…