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Drug Treatment and Chronic Relapse

If you have been to drug treatment two or more times you may have been tagged with the label, "chronic relapser." Perhaps you have lost hope at ever finding a solution and your family and friends have given up on you. With each stint in drug treatment you feel more and more like a complete failure. But what if I told you that your relapses may not be your fault? What if I told you that drug treatment is the problem, not the solution? And what if I told you that what you learned in drug treatment was designed to keep you stuck, not help you to overcome your problems and move on with your life?

The term relapse itself is problematic. It implies that a person is chronically ill and that their illness goes into dormancy but is likely to recur. At each drug treatment program you've learned what I call the Drug Treatment dogma :

  1. That you are suffering from a progressive, incurable, lifelong disease called addiction (which is actually a theory with no scientific backing whatsever.)
  2. That your only hope is to accept that you are powerless over your disease, that you are powerless over drugs and / or alcohol and absolutely that you are powerless over many other areas of your life as well; such as relationships, circumstances, your health / disease, etc. (This is called having an external locus of control which has been linked to clinical depression.)
  3. That you must attend daily meetings everyday for the rest of your life if you are to have any hope of remaining sober and drug free (although those who attend meetings have an estimated 5% rate of success.)
  4. That relapse is an expected part of the lifelong recovery process.
  5. And in most cases, that you must seek God's help and "turn your will and your life" over to Him. (Many will not say this directly, but will instead mandate 12 Step meetings which are centered on the belief, adoration and complete reliance on a Christian God.)

Much of what you've learned in drug treatment has been focused on your past problems and behaviors and discouraged you from planning for a future filled with success. You were told to take it, "one day at a time" and to "let go and let God." Slogans, daily Christian affirmations, meetings and therapy are the only solutions you have been given and when you have found yourself struggling once again with substance use you literally learned to be helpless.

In the 1960's while doing graduate work in Psychology, Martin Seligman , stumbled upon a phenomenon he called learned helplessness . While working with dogs Seligman and his colleagues learned that dogs could be conditioned into acting helpless. In other words just as animals can be conditioned to press a lever to feed themselves or alleviate discomfort, they can also be conditioned to do nothing and starve to death or continue receiving shocks without making any efforts to obtain food or alleviate their discomfort. Quite literal animals can unlearn basic survival skills if they are subjected to repetitive failure. In his continued research Seligman saw that the same is true for humans and he has linked learned helplessness to clinical depression. With respect to over addiction, as people go from one drug treatment program to another, learning that they are powerless and then fail each time, they literally learn to be helpless, and succumb to what they believe is a lifelong illness.

If you have been labeled a chronic relapser by the addiction treatment establishment, then by them you would have considered a success story. You have lived up to the full potential of what drug treatment taught you. You have accepted that you are powerless; and you have fully incorporated into your life that you have an incurable disease; and you have accepted that you will struggle with your disease forever which you have done. As you can clearly see, learned helplessness is the exact goal of drug treatment.

Thankfully, addiction is not a disease; it is a learned behavior and a choice. People do increase their substance use problems everyday and the vast majority of people do this without setting foot in a drug treatment program. The key to overcoming addiction begins with the belief that you can; not with admitting and accepting that you can not.

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