Impossible, but Temporarily So)
During the past few days, I have discussed the addict who has fallen to his temptations time and time again, yet still thinks that next time he’ll somehow pull through. I made the case that if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that all of our desire and willpower combined are not enough to prevent us from doing the things we despair of. When we act out our addiction, our base and thoughtless impulses are bringing the whole self along for the ride, even if some of those parts are kicking and screaming against it!
I have also shared how this is in large part due to the stunted prefrontal cortex that develops in the mind of the addict. One who has given in to a harmful habit for an extended period of time literally has less mental willpower than one who has not. To adapt to this fact, we must consider techniques that will help us avoid our temptations, rather than trying to fight them head-on. But before I get into that, I do want to offer one word of encouragement in regard to facing temptation and overcoming it.
I have made the case that the addict has some situations where he will give into temptation, even if he doesn’t want to. We don’t like that fact, but it is a fact, nonetheless. I want to reiterate a fact that I shared just yesterday, though, which is that it doesn’t have to always be that way. Absolutely we can strengthen the prefrontal cortex, build up moral fortitude, break habits, and get to the point where the same temptations that would have overwhelmed us can now be rejected entirely. Many former addicts have healed their minds and their souls in just this way, and we can, too, but in order to survive long enough to do so, we will need to employ these more preventative tactics that I am about to discuss.
If and Then)
Let us suppose that at last we are able to admit that we are not in such control of ourselves as we would like to think. Let us suppose that we have accepted that given certain situations we will give in to temptation. This does not have to be a statement of hopelessness. It can instead be the first part of an if-then rule that preserves our safety.
If I cannot browse the internet late at night by myself without viewing pornography, then I will not browse the internet late at night by myself. If I cannot walk by the pub without going in for a drink, then I will not walk by the pub. If I cannot go to that restaurant without ordering the chocolate cake, then I won’t go to that restaurant anymore.
If I’m serious about my recovery, then I’m not going to put myself into the same position of failure that I have succumbed to time and time again. I’m not going to make the mistake of thinking that I’ll just defeat temptation in battle, I’m going to secure victory by preventing the battle from ever occurring.
By understanding the parameters and preconditions of our acting out, we can stop worrying about how we will face temptation and instead focus our efforts further upstream. If you’ve let it get to the point that you’re alone in your office with your hands hovering over the keyboard, or sitting on the stool talking to the barkeep, or roving your eyes over the menu, you’ve probably already lost. The time to fight was when you first started going to the place of temptation. You may currently lack the resolve to resist the tantalizing ad on your computer, the smell of the beer, the atmosphere of the restaurant, but you probably did have the resolve thirty minutes earlier to say, “I’m going to bring my laptop out into the family room where everyone can see me,” or “I’m going to see if my friends want to play golf instead,” or “I’m going to try that other restaurant today.”
This is true, because even though the prefrontal cortex of the addict brain has been diminished, it has not died completely. The addict still is capable of higher reasoning, just not when they are not in the face of great temptation. By exercising their reason at a time when the distasteful appetite is sleeping, they can avoid waking the beast entirely.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
One of the most basic components of engineering is the lever. It is a simple machine whereby a relatively small force in one place can be magnified into a multiplied force somewhere else. One may not have enough strength to move a heavy rock directly, but through the magnification of a lever, their strength can end up indirectly moving the rock even so.
Does it matter if you don’t have the willpower to turn down temptation if you do have the willpower to avoid the temptation in the first place? In either case, haven’t you effectively overcome your addiction in that moment? A choice, only made indirectly made through another choice, is still your choice.
It takes some time an observation, but if you examine your life and your addiction behaviors, you will notice that there are certain situations and events that tend to be precursors to those actions. With a little thoughtful effort, you can circumvent those situations and events, and will already make great progress towards sobriety.
But of course, even this is not a complete solution. If we circumvent every opening for the addiction, soon we will experience the symptoms of withdrawal. Cravings will arise, even without our usual triggers to set them off. Sooner or later, we’ve got to deal with that matter of resolve in the face of temptation. And I’ll tell you right now, there will never be an easy win here. It is always going to be a difficult, uphill battle. But at least we’ve cornered the enemy to this one place. So next we will examine how we rely on a willpower other than our own in such moments. We’ll dive into that topic tomorrow.