When Abstinence is Hailed as the only Solution
(c) 2011 Peter Ferentzy, PhD, Crackhead
One thing the recovery machine, professional and grassroots, typically overlooks is that abstinence is simply not feasible for most addicts -- at least not right away. And, down the road when it may be feasible, it might not be necessary or even the best option. But let's focus on the first few years of recovery. For an adult who has been self-medicating since early adolescence, complete abstinence is often destructive (further reading can be found at the bottom of this page). In normal medical practice, professionals work with –- rather than against –- a patient’s tendencies. Yet, with addiction, a 180 degree reversal is often hailed as the solution. In a vast majority of cases, this “solution” is a violent, dangerous assault on a person’s entire being. And if less than 5% who attempt abstinence are able to keep it up for two years without a horrible crash, the dominant mindset simply blames the overwhelming majority rather than targeting the obvious culprit: abstinence hailed as the only possible goal at the exclusion of every other option. There is nothing wrong with abstinence per se. The trouble starts when it is hailed, uncompromisingly, as the only option.
The abstinence principle is the problem. The “solution” will involve, among other things, kicking all the abstinence pushers out of the treatment business. They promote death. They promote suffering. They interfere with every harm reduction initiative that has been proven to help.
Next to the ideology of hitting bottom, the abstinence principle is the most destructive -- and I mean murderous -- tenet associated with the governing approach to addictions. First off, most addicts and alcoholics never abstain for a whole year even if they do get their lives together. Yet all of these efforts, all of these results, are denied recognition. For most addicts and alcoholics, the pure abstainers set an irrelevant example. And, obviously, this example detracts attention from other behaviors –- e.g., violent, sexual, related to gambling –- that are often far more harmful than a slip on the booze or the dope.
There is more, and my book already rips the abstinence principle to shreds: I show, beyond reasonable doubt, that it is illogical as well as impractical and, above all, that this ideal kills addicts and alcoholics, brings misery to their families … Yes, I prove it – plain and simple. I show how the abstinence principle is a stupid and destructive relic from the 20th century.
Rather than go over all that again, I would raise another matter. It was a few years back that a friend told me of an incident in Montreal. A relatively new member of a 12 Step fellowship, pretty well indistinguishable from many other newcomers, one day showed up at a meeting with a gun, pointing it at people and threatening them. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Experienced members did some digging to find out what had caused this. Apparently, some jackass in the rooms had told this guy to get off his meds because blah, blah, blah.
This is an extreme example of how stupid the abstinence principal can be, and most 12 Steppers are more sensible than that, but it really happens in gradations. Attacks on methadone maintenance cause death and misery. Telling a recovering addict who’s happy smoking one joint a week or drinking three beers to stop completely, even when the activity is helping him, is another example of an uncompromising myopia that does far more harm than good. And, no, the pure abstainers are not necessarily better off. Even if many of them desperately want to believe that they are, even if a bullshit treatment machine desperately tries to convince the world that they are, the real truth is a simple no-brainer: some do well with abstinence, and some do well with other solutions.
Recovery has to be about living decently and being happy –- whether that’s done with abstinence or chemical assistance is irrelevant. This one point is overlooked, and with another devastating effect: someone who is completely miserable while abstinent is encouraged to keep it up! Even if the person has done everything that treatment workers and 12 steppers told him to do, the idea that maybe –- just maybe –- in any one case “abstinence” might actually be the problem is not even considered. Of course, when the poor sap can't take it anymore and falls hard, the abstinence pushers will refuse to take responsibility (even though they damn well should). Instead, they'll shake their heads and spew well-rehearsed self-righteous tripe: "If only she would have worked the program." "If only he would have done the do things." Too bad if the person did these things -- the pushers will insist that he or she must not have done them right.
Why not target the obvious culprit? Why not identify the abstinence principle as the problem?
One thing you should really appreciate, and here I must insist on a profound grasp: the pushers who are guilty of all that destruction -- of the many deaths that ensue -- take some kind of warped pleasure out of shaking their heads and spewing self-righteous tripe. Moral indignation, preachy attitudes of every kind, often rest on a simple pleasure principle: some are just plain addicted to waving their moral fingers in the air. Aside from all the financial motives underlying the treatment machine, that one sick little addiction is also in the mix.
At this website you can learn about how abstinence pushers caused the deaths of two people I cared for dearly (The Book/Excerpt--A Peek Inside).
Time to Wake up
Time to get busy
Time to step up
Make ‘em go tizzy © Peter Ferentzy 2010
For more information on these issues, see:
Project MATCH Research Group. (1997). Matching alcoholism
treatments to client heterogeneity: Project MATCH post-treatment
outcomes. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 58, 7–29.
Reinarman, C. (2005). Addiction as accomplishment: The discursive
construction of disease. Addiction Research and Theory, 13, 307–320.
Roizen, R. (1987). The great controlled-drinking controversy. In M.
Galanter (Ed.), Recent developments in alcoholism: Vol. 5. Memory
deficits, sociology of treatment, ion channels, early problem drinking
(pp. 245–279). New York, NY: Plenum Press.
SAMHSA. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) United
States. (1995). Effectiveness of substance abuse treatment. Rockville,
Sanchez-Craig, M., & Lei, H. (1986). Disadvantages to imposing the
goal of total abstinence on problem drinkers: An empirical study.
British Journal of Addiction, 81, 505–512.