You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Summary

Capable but Powerless)

I began this journey by considering the conundrum of the addict who hates his addiction but lives it even so. The addict possesses the physical capability to change his behavior, and sufficient desire to cease his behavior, yet finds himself falling into it again and again. The missing piece, as we have discussed, is that the addict lacks the mental willpower to translate his desires to his actions, at least when in the face of powerful temptation. His prefrontal cortex has been eroded, which is responsible for all his higher mental functions. When the need for another hit arises, all feelings and rationality are numbed into silence, leaving the addict a slave to his base impulses.

Many of us felt that we had plenty of character. There was a tremendous urge to cease forever. Yet we found it impossible. This is the baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it – this utter inability to leave it alone, no matter how great the necessity or the wish. - Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book

This conundrum has led many the addict to despair. He feels that at some point earlier in life he must have forfeited his last chance at salvation. By the time he became really serious about wanting to change, it was already too late, and now he believes that he is doomed to do the very things he despises most for the rest of his life. This demoralizes the addict, is almost certain to cause him to enter a deep depression, and can even make him suicidal.

While I would certainly never encourage any suicidal notions in any person, reaching this moment of despair does suggest that the addict has finally reached the point where he can be totally honest with himself. Because he’s right, he can’t win this battle. Only by accepting this soul-crushing defeat can he begin the path to victory.

Other Paths)

When one door closes, another opens

For most addicts, it is only the total failure of their attempts to control their lives that will finally humble them enough to hear alternative methods. Inherent in all of us is the desire to fix ourselves by ourselves, so we have to try at that for a very long time, and to absolutely ruinous results, before we will start to look outside for help. And it is in this shift outwards, though, that we can actually find the success that has eluded us for so long.

Quite probably the single method that has brought the most hopeless-case addicts to true healing has been the twelve-step program invented by the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, and this program is entirely predicated upon the notion that the addict, though powerless by himself, can find the power to overcome his addiction through the strength of God and the recovery group that he binds himself to. Relying upon others goes absolutely in the face of our desire to be autonomous and self-powerful, but, paradoxically, it is also the only thing that will ever allow us to regain out autonomy and self-power.

In the course of this study, we examined how the addict who reaches out to a fellow brother or sister when facing temptation is inviting a working rational mind to the situation. The addict who calls for help is having his mind assaulted and numbed by an active temptation, but the person that he calls probably is not. The helper can provide the calm reasoning to the distressed addict, talking them down off the ledge and back into rational ways of thinking.

We also considered how uniting together for this good purpose gives us access to Christ’s promise that “where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Coming together as a group for a holy cause is one of the surest ways I know of to tap into the strength and willpower of the divine. And, in my experience, that strength and willpower is far more than enough to overcome every temptation that we might face. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

We also discussed personal practices that the addict can put in place to help shore up his defenses. These are in no way an alternative to calling upon the strength of our brothers and sisters and God, but an addendum to those resources.

The practices we described included recognizing and avoiding the sequence of events that typically precede our acting out. Often there are trigger events that come before the temptation, and much of our acting out can be avoided if we simply avoid the trigger event. Usually we are able to circumvent that trigger because our mind isn’t yet fogged over by temptation.

The other personal practice we discussed was finding the areas of life where our damaged prefrontal cortex and higher reasoning weren’t being entirely steamrolled by temptation. In those areas we make a conscious effort to act deliberately and conscientiously. I pointed out how when we deliberately do little things to improve our lives, even if they seem fairly inconsequential, we are exercising the regions of our brain needed to perform higher executive functions. Bit-by-bit we are increasing our willpower, mental strength, and conviction. Eventually we will have enough power to reclaim the fields taken by our addiction.

Hopelessness isn’t Hopeless)

Sometimes it isn’t the situation that is hopeless, it is the method that we are bringing to it. Each of us needs to give up on using the wrong tool so that we can start to use the right one.

If you have a genuine addiction, powering through on your own is doomed to failure, but that doesn’t mean that you are necessarily doomed to failure. After failing countless times over it is easy to become pessimistic and assume that nothing could ever work for you.

I’m here to give you the good news that this is not the case at all, though. You are not the first person to have felt this way, and you will not be the last person to find salvation even so. Leaving behind the methods that didn’t work, now embrace the methods that do. Learn to be shrewd in how you avoid temptation, build up strength of willpower through small wins, and tap into the strength of others and God.

Do these things and your mind will heal, your impulsive behaviors will fade, and self-control will return. You will become one of those of whom it has been said, “For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:28).

I have seen it in myself and in numerous others. The brain can heal itself. Hope can be restored. The numbing forces can be numbed.

As I pointed out at the start of this post, the addict in the midst of despair can find himself entertaining thoughts of suicide. He is wrong to think he has no alternative but to end his life, however he is correct that a death of some sort must occur. That death, though, is the death of the ego. Only by denying himself, putting to death his pride and isolationism, can he be reborn through the baptism of fellowship in Christ. He must immerse himself in the brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow addicts in recovery, and when he does, he will feel Christ manifesting within himself. Then his new life truly begins.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Five

A Pattern of Power)

I have been discussing ways that we can find the willpower to fight temptation, even when our brains have been damaged by our addictions. I have covered doing all that we can to avoid even encountering our temptations, but sooner or later they will find us even so, and then we must suddenly find strength and mental reasoning that we are incapable of providing for ourselves.

This immediately suggests that we must have a strength that is beyond our own. An external strength and reasoning that will slay the dragons that we fail to overcome by ourselves.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. - Matthew 18:20

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me - Philippians 4:13

These verses provide us a pattern for accessing just such an outer strength, a pattern that I have found most effective. In the first verse we are promised by Christ himself that when we gather together in his name, he will dwell among us. In the second verse we are told by Paul that Christ strengthens him to be able to do all things. Thus, gathering together invites Christ’s spirit, and Christ’s spirit lifts us to be able to do what we could not do on our own. This is a pattern that I have been able to make use of in my own life and I have come to value it greatly.

Group Strength)

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous discovered that there was a special power when addicts came together as a group to lay down their burdens and encourage one another. A room full of individual failures could somehow churn out mass success. Ever since that realization, groups have sprung up all across the world and for all manner of different addiction recoveries. I, myself, regularly participate in a twelve-step group for pornography addiction, and I can attest that there really is a secret strength in numbers.

Mathematically, it doesn’t seem to make sense. As an analogy, imagine if our addiction was our debt and our resolve was our assets. Then an addict, by definition, is someone whose debt outweighs his assets, someone who is at a net negative. Now if you have ten such men, all with a net negative, and you combine them all together, what would you expect? Net negative of course! A negative plus a negative plus a negative plus a negative–and so on–can only result in a greater negative.

But, counter-intuitively, that’s just not how it works in practice. The men in my group bring all of their problems with them to the recovery group, yet somehow the group doesn’t feel weighed down by the shared burden. Instead, weight is collectively lifted up by the group and tossed aside.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that the scriptures cited above are true. When we gather together to do the holy work of refining our souls, Christ is there in our midst. We come with all our collective debts, but he has a wealth of assets, enough to compensate for all our shortcomings and more.

A Phone Call Away)

And this same strength can be called upon in moments of duress as well. We addicts have learned that we can recreate the spirit of the group with a simple phone call to another brother, right when we’re being faced by our temptation.

We might feel powerless in the face of the temptation when on our own. We might feel that we are doomed to give in. But if in that moment we can work up just enough resolve to make a phone call, then as soon as we start sharing our burden with a brother, that same unseen power starts rising within, enabling us to do the very thing we couldn’t just a few moments before.

In fact, we don’t even need to have decided to overcome our temptation when we first make the call. We can simply make the call without any commitment whether we will remain sober after we hang up or not. We only need to have the strength to dial the number, and then the strength to go the rest of the way will follow. If I can’t decide to be sober on my own, I can still decide to step out and get help. And when I chose to step out and get help, then I can decide to be sober, too.

The power that comes from reaching out to a fellow addict in the moment of temptation is twofold. On the one hand, we are currently having our mental willpower, our brain’s prefrontal cortex, overrun by our powerful temptation. Our mind isn’t working how it should, but in the fellow addict that we call there is still a properly functioning mind. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t currently being overrun like ours is. Thus, they are able to bring the higher reasoning and persuasion that our own mind cannot provide. Later, when they are the one being overrun by temptation and we are back to sure footing, then we are able to provide the same benefit to them.

The second power is, of course, the light of Christ that I have already been discussing. For when a brother reaches out to me to help, I really do feel that it is more than my own mental faculty that I am able to bring to bear on the matter. I have felt an external love and wisdom flow into me, helping me to say and share the things that will speak directly to the soul of my brother. And I have felt the exact same divine presence shared with me when I have called for help, too.

Growing Ranks)

I don’t know why the power of Christ comes to us in this way, but it just does. I have tried many times to pray in isolation for his power and I have been very disappointed in the results. On the other hand, I have never gone to a recovery group meeting without feeling Christ’s power overflowing me. I have never reached out to a brother in recovery without feeling the strength to do what I couldn’t before. It seems to me that this is just how he wants it. He wants me to reach out to others, and he gave his instructions in the verse from Matthew so that I would know that I needed to do it.

At this point I’ve discussed how we can find self-control through preventative measures, and how we can access the strength of Christ and a larger group. I have also explained how exercising our willpower in daily tasks can increase our resolve over time. This brings me to the end of all the techniques that I wanted to share with you. Tomorrow, we’ll review them all together. I’ll see you there.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part One

An Unfixable Flaw)

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. - Romans 7:19

The universal paradox that every addict faces is the notion that they must stop acting out, but they can’t. They have tried to stop so many times before only to repeatedly let themselves down. They are overcome with a terrible sense of powerlessness, a belief that they are forever destined to do the very things that they cannot accept.

And what makes this situation even more frustrating is that part of them still insists that they really could stop. Certainly they possess the physical capability to not do the troubling behavior. None of us are physically required to do any of the things that we wish we didn’t do. It’s just that we can’t work up the self-will to control ourselves.

Except for when we do. I was once speaking to a man who received a powerful insight from his therapist. The addict had been bemoaning that he kept returning to pornography because he had no power to resist. The therapist then asked him what would happen if he was viewing pornography in his room and heard the footsteps of someone coming down the hall. Well, in that case, all of a sudden, this “powerless” man would suddenly find untold reserves of willpower as he frantically ALT-TABBED away from the offensive window! Thus, it was clear that the man could exercise the willpower to turn from his addiction, at least when sufficiently motivated by the fear of being found out!

Can’t vs Won’t)

So, what is it? We seem to be going back-and-forth as to whether the addict can suddenly stop his problematic behavior or not. After some time, I have concluded that the seeming paradox goes away just as soon as we change one, little word. Instead of saying that the addict “can’t” stop their behavior, it is far more truthful to say that they “won’t.”

Now I don’t mean “won’t” in the sense that the addict will defiantly refuse, only that the addict has presented copious amounts of evidence that when subjected to certain situations and triggers they will act out and they will not stop themself, even though they otherwise possess the desire and physical capability to reject the behavior. This is an observable, consistent pattern which we all need to come to terms with sooner or later.

The first truth that every addict must accept is that “if I am alone, by myself, under these particular circumstances…I am going to act out.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to resist, or that you won’t try to resist, or that you’re faking your efforts to be sober. Indeed, the defining trait of the addict is that he really, truly, sincerely does want to stop himself…but he just won’t.

The only logical conclusion is that part of the addict is holding the rest of himself as a slave. There is the part that would live soberly, but there is the other part that won’t let him.

Surrender)

This is a simple concept, but it is extremely difficult to accept. We are loathe to admit that we are not as in control of our own selves as we pretend. We say that we aren’t beholden to anyone or anything, that we are our own master, that all it takes for us to do something is to choose to do it.

But that is demonstrably false. That we are the masters of our own fate is a motivating and happy thought, but it is a complete lie. And living a lie is to remain living a pattern of life that simply cannot work. So long as you insist on this mentality of being your own master you’re going to keep living as a slave to your lusts, insisting through it all that you’re a free man.

I would like to tell you that waving the white flag and admitting that you are a slave to your appetites isn’t necessary. I have tried to find my way around this surrender myself. I have tried to deny my fundamental powerlessness. I have tried to find the external evils that forced me to do wrong against my self will.

But the simple fact of the matter is that if I live the same patterns of life that I have lived before, I will give in to my temptations again and again. Not because anyone or anything external forced me, not because I wanted to, but because I am enslaved to a tyrant of my own making. And I have to accept that fact, and then accept it again and again, anytime my ego starts to think that I can fully trust myself in the driver’s seat, only to be proven wrong yet again.

Now I do have more to say on the matter, including more hopeful messages for the addict, but first and foremost we have to come to accept this sense of powerlessness. This is the first step of any twelve-step program, to finally accept that we will not do what we wish we would do under every circumstance. Let’s let this notion settle in for today, and then move on to next things tomorrow. I’ll see you then.