If you attend recovery meetings, you will at some point hear the term white-knuckling. This is a very graphic 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 word and it is intended to convey the message that you are not doing recovery the right way. The recovery community generally believes that those people who make the effort to stay clean on their own will certainly 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 busy writing and contemplating their life and working on themselves while clean time accumulates.
Time To Heal
Clearly 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 are often told just don’t pick up drugs no matter what. This sounds to me a lot like using willpower. The same willpower that would be used in so called white-knuckling. I would propose that white-knuckling and no-matter-what are exactly the same thing. White-knuckling is simply a derogatory term for the person that does no-matter-what by themselves, without “the program”.
While I believe that most of the improvements seen in recovery can be attributed to 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 truly 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 difficult accomplishment of discontinuing drugs and staying clean for long periods of time.
Addiction is a medical condition. It must be recognized as such. Nothing is accomplished 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 in order 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 simply one of the symptoms of addiction.
The disease of addiction causes changes in the human brain that cause certain behaviors. It is often difficult to see mental illness in the same way that we see physical illness. We make different kinds of assumptions about illness 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 chronic illnesses 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 to just 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 rely 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 you are told to not 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 which 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 certain situations, people and places can act as strong 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 remain constantly grateful and aware of your behaviors is a great way to keep yourself from slipping back and being triggered into a relapse.
It is important to be aware that there are multiple paths to recovery and people are different. Manifestations of chronic mental illness, often complicated by multiple diagnoses, lead to unique diagnosis and treatment needs for individuals. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to recovery from active addiction. Meetings can be very helpful in addition to appropriate medical care.