White-Knuckling Versus No-Matter-What: Are They The Same Thing?

White-Knuckling Versus No-Matter-What: Are They The Same Thing?


If you attend recovery meetings, you will, at some point, hear the term white-knuckling. White-knuckling is a very descriptive term to describe the experience of not taking drugs and fighting it with all your strength and willpower. It implies that you are going at it alone without any help.

White-knuckling is a negative term, and it conveys the message that you are not doing recovery the right way. The recovery community generally believes that those people who make an effort to stay clean on their own will undoubtedly fail at some point.

No Matter What

On the other hand, there is another concept that I will refer to as “no matter what.” Recovering addicts will tell you that when all else fails, just don’t use drugs no matter what. The advice is solid. Staying clean gives your brain a chance to heal. Recovering from active addiction takes time.

Yet, there is a distinction made between no-matter-what and white-knuckling. The former implies that you are applying focused willpower to stay clean, AND you are going to meetings and have a sponsor. The latter is the same in every way, but you are doing it on your own.

Those who believe in the power of the 12 steps would say that it is the best and maybe even the only way to achieve lasting recovery and clean and sober time. On the other hand, one might say that the 12 steps are a sort of busy work to keep the recovering person engaged in writing and contemplating their life and working on themselves while clean time accumulates.

Time To Heal

A large part of recovering from active addiction is giving the brain time to rest. When a person does go to meetings and has a sponsor, and they ask that sponsor how to handle their cravings, they will tell them just don’t pick up drugs no matter what. Saying this sounds to me a like using willpower. Your sponsor’s advice sounds like the same willpower used in so-called white-knuckling. I would propose that white-knuckling and no-matter-what are precisely the same things. White-knuckling is simply a derogatory term for the person that does no-matter-what by themselves, without “the program.”

Understanding Addiction

While I believe that most of the improvements seen in recovery are a result of the body and brain’s natural healing abilities, this does not mean that going to meetings is a bad idea. There are not many places where a person who is recovering from addiction can speak to people who genuinely understand what they are going through. Generally, many people in the medical field and family and friends will have a warped understanding of the process of the disease of addiction and what it is like to achieve the overwhelmingly stressful accomplishment of discontinuing drugs and staying clean for long periods.

Addiction is a medical condition. We accomplish nothing by treating the recovering person as a bad child or a person who is, by nature, immoral, or even evil. When a person who is addicted lies to you to be able to continue using their drug of choice, they don’t do it because they want to. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily want to live a life of suffering and pain in active addiction. It is merely one of the symptoms of addiction.

The disease of addiction causes changes in the human brain that cause specific behaviors. It is often challenging to see mental illness in the same way that we see physical illness. We make different kinds of assumptions about a disease that affects behavior.

Mental Illness Is As Real As Physical Illness

Healthcare providers, family, and loved ones of those who are addicted and society must understand that the behavioral changes of mental illness are in no way different than the symptoms of other chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, or even a broken bone. What addiction shares with all of these medical conditions is that the body needs time to heal, and it needs time and help in some cases from medicine to do so. We must understand that the brain and the mind are part of the body. A brain broken by addiction needs to be reset and given time to heal, just like a broken bone. We know better than to treat a broken leg with tough love and tell the person just to go and walk it off.

Less Tough Love, More Compassion and Understanding

So, let us stop relying so much on tough love to treat addiction and have a little bit more on compassion, understanding, and solid evidence-based medical science. If you are addicted, and you do choose to go to 12-step meetings, and they tell you not to pick up a drug no matter what, this is excellent advice. Or, if you do not go to meetings and you manage to stay clean regardless, you must understand that you are still achieving success.

With time, the cravings will dissipate. The functioning of your mind will progressively improve. Yet, remember that addiction is a chronic disease that never completely goes away, no matter how much time you have clean. You must always be vigilant and remember that any kind of drug or alcohol and specific situations, people, and places can act as potent triggers.

The Benefits of Group Meetings

This ongoing vigilance is where the 12-step programs excel and shine. Learning to clean up your life and continuously remain grateful and aware of your behaviors is a great way to keep yourself from slipping back and being triggered into a relapse.

It is essential to be aware that there are multiple paths to recovery, and people are different. Manifestations of chronic mental illness, often complicated by numerous diagnoses, lead to different diagnoses and treatment needs for individuals. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to recovery from active addiction. Meetings can be constructive in addition to appropriate medical care.

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