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The study Willenbring supervised, NESARC, which also assessed drug addiction, tells us so. Looking at the point at which half the people who were ever dependent on a substance recovered, NESARC investigators found this was 26 years out for those who were ever dependent on cigarettes, 14 years for alcoholics, six years for marijuana addicts, and five years for those addicted to cocaine. As with alcohol, only a minority of drug addicts achieved recovery through treatment.
What about narcotics addicts? The NESARC research simply didn’t uncover enough heroin addicts to include in the survey to analyze. But a separate review of research that included narcotics addicts found similar results. Although these addicts had a longer half-life for their addictions than those addicted to other illicit drugs, they still often concluded their addictions and achieved recovery in less time than alcoholics and, certainly, cigarette addicts.
It turns out that Willenbring, an M.D., couldn’t escape the conventional notions of addiction he and American medicine are saddled with. For Willenbring, discovering the unimaginable—that most alcoholics recover over time without treatment and while continuing to drink—left him with something else he couldn’t imagine: drug addiction shows the same tendency to correct itself.
Why wouldn’t alcohol, cocaine, and narcotic addictions follow the same patterns as NESARC found to hold for alcoholics? After all, why should one substance addiction differ essentially from other substance addictions or, really, from all of human behavior? As I said in 1985 in The Meaning of Addiction: Compulsive Experience and Its Interpretation:
The conventional concept of addiction this book confronts—the one accepted not only by the media and popular audiences, but by researchers whose work does little to support it—derives more from magic than from science. The core of this concept is that an entire set of feelings and behaviors is the unique result of one biological process. No other scientific formulation attributes a complex human phenomenon to the nature of a particular stimulus: statements such as “He ate all the ice cream because it was so good” or “She watches so much television because it’s fun” are understood to call for a greater understanding of the actors’ motivations (except, ironically, as these activities are now considered analogous to narcotic addiction). Even reductionist theories of mental illness such as of depression and schizophrenia seek to account for a general state of mind, not specific behavior. Only compulsive consumption of narcotics and alcohol—conceived of as addictions (and now, other addictions that are seen to operate in the same way)—is believed to be the result of a spell that no effort of will can break.
That drug addiction, including its remission, is simply an extension of ordinary human behavior has actually been known for some time, as I noted in Love and Addiction in 1975. It had been discovered by Charles Winick, and announced in his 1962 paper for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Maturing Out of Narcotic Addiction,” in which he found that from two-thirds to three-quarters of addicts registered by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had quit their addictions by their mid-thirties. Indeed, in a sense, Winick was moved to understand why the minority of heroin addicts did not recover. He surmised, based on his investigations of New York City street addicts, "The difference between those who mature out of addiction and those who do not may also mirror the difference between addicts who struggle to abandon addiction and may develop some insight, and those who decide that they are 'hooked,' make no effort to abandon addiction, and give in to what they regard as inevitable."
Thus, ironically, it is those who are most convinced by the “chronic brain disease” narrative who are least likely to overcome addiction! This paradox was contemplated by the distinguished addiction expert William White, who is often associated with the American “recovery movement” (read Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 steps). Analyzing 415 scientific reports of recovery, from the mid-19th century to the present, White was moved to contemplate the addiction-as-disease philosophy’s claims that addiction is a chronic—even, in AA’s view, a progressive—disease when, actually, “Recovery is not an aberration achieved by a small and morally enlightened minority of addicted people. If there is a natural developmental momentum within the course of these problems, it is toward remission and recovery.”
Nadine was facing a formidable set of foes when she decided to quit her addiction—the NIDA, Alan Leshner, Nora Volkow, Alcoholics Anonymous, neuroscience, what have you. But, it turns out, the forces of science were actually propelling her forward. And she did quit drinking—so far for six years. In White’s words: “The central problem is not the difficulty of making recovery possible—that potential clearly exists. It is instead the long time between problem onset and successful recovery stabilization.”
As I say in my new book with Ilse Thompson, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program.
By reinforcing the myth that addiction is uncontrollable and permanent, neuroscientific models make it harder to overcome the problem, just as the 12-step disease model has all along. Telling yourself that you are powerless over addiction is self-defeating; it limits your capacity to change and grow. Isn’t it better to start from the belief that you—or your spouse, or your child—can fully and finally break out of addictive habits by redirecting your life? It may not be quick and easy to accomplish, but it happens all the time. In this book I will show you how it happens and what it takes to do it.
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