You’ll hear a lot of reasons why addicts can’t stop doing drugs and why alcoholics can’t stop drinking, but the main reason they can’t stop is because they literally cannot stop—their brains won’t allow it.
If they would, and they truly wanted to, I promise you that they could (some don’t want to stop, and that’s a different story).
We call addiction a disease for a reason: drugs and alcohol do something to my body that they don’t do to other people.
Just as a person with diabetes is physically different from me—my body makes the insulin I need, theirs doesn’t—my addict body is physically different from the average person’s:
I have a compulsion to keep drinking and using once I put a substance in my body, and I have a compulsion to get more once I sober up.
Once I start, that compulsion to keep going cannot be stopped. When I am forced to stop (I go to jail or rehab or run out), I cannot get the idea out of my head no matter what I do.
That means I drink more than I intend to. It means I use more than I want to. It means I use and drink far beyond the point where it feels good or is fun. I use and drink despite the consequences.
It means I walk out of rehabs wanting to stop, only to use that day. It means I cry while getting high because I don’t want to do it anymore, because I feel like a self-destructing robot with no free will. It means I’ll use anything to get high because I cannot stop thinking about it.
I’ve found myself walking into Staples to buy a can of air duster to suck down because I couldn’t get any alcohol or other drugs. It was disgusting, and I hated it, and I did it anyway.
That’s powerlessness. I’ve never felt more out of control than when I was using. It was like an out-of-body experience. I watched myself do these horrible things and couldn’t make it stop.
I would find myself dialing the numbers of drug dealers after changing my number and getting a new phone. I would find myself in liquor stores after I swore for the 100th time that I’d never drink again. I found myself buying coke despite the fact that I absolutely hated using it.
I was using against my will, and it was horrific. That’s why a true addict can’t stop using.
I know that it looks like the addict/alcoholic is doing this on purpose. After all, our hands are the ones lifting the bottles to our lips, putting the needles in our veins, putting the powders up our noses. But while it’s true my body is doing these things, for years I didn’t want to be doing it.
I wasn’t hurting my family and friends because I wanted to. I truly wished that I wasn’t doing those things. I just couldn’t defeat the obsession to drink and use. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
So that answers the question of why addicts can’t stop using drugs, but there’s an important assumption being made here: we’re assuming the addict/alcoholic wants to stop.
If the Addict/Alcoholic Doesn’t Want to Stop, You Have a Different Problem
If you’re reading this, and you have a friend or family member who is an addict or an alcoholic who can’t stop, there are 2 important questions to ask:
- Can this addict stop using?
- Does this addict want to stop getting high?
The 1st question might not be clear. There are certainly people out there who use and drink a lot like I do but have the ability to stop or moderate on their own, and for whatever reason, they don’t exercise it.
For many people who use or drink heavily, they may just not want to stop.
They may never have tried to stop because they saw no reason to, especially if they weren’t have severe consequences (severe enough, in their opinion, to make them want to stop).
But they might also be like me and still not want to stop, which means they’re alcoholics/addicts and either don’t know it because they’ve never tried to stop or just don’t care if they are and wouldn’t stop anyway.
It could be because they can’t imagine how they could live without it. I’ve felt that before, especially in the early days of my disease.
It could be a ton of other reasons, but the reasons don’t really matter. If someone doesn’t want to stop, they’re not going to get sober no matter what you do, and it doesn’t really matter if they’re a true addict or not at that point.
That’s so different from other types of illnesses, even other mental illnesses.
If someone has cancer and doesn’t think they have cancer or refuses treatment, in theory you could hold them down or knock them out and force them to have the treatments, and the cancer would be cured (hopefully) no matter what that person thought.
It’s the same with many other types of mental illnesses. If you force a person with Bipolar Disorder to take the right medications, they’re going to have a reaction to those meds whether they like it or not and (hopefully) get better.
The same just can’t be said for alcoholics and drug addicts. If they truly believe that there’s no problem, why would they stop? There’s no medication you can force into them that will eliminate their desire (not an uncontrollable compulsion, but just a personal desire) to keep getting high.
Even if they’re not getting cravings like I do when I’m sober and not working a program, even if they’re not a full-blown alcoholic/addict, if they just like getting high and want to keep doing it, no one can really stop them (not even if they’re in prison or rehab).
Addicts Can Stop Using, But They Need Help
I used to think I would never get more than a couple days sober. I couldn’t quit no matter what I did.
I know a lot of people who have had the same experience.
I couldn’t stop because my brain had been changed. It craved drugs and alcohol at all times. The fact that this craving no longer exists in me is a miracle that I cannot explain. What makes it even stranger is that it basically happened overnight.
There are many paths to sobriety. The path I took was through the 12 steps, and it was so effective that I’ve never bothered to try another program.
That being said, if anyone finds a different path and stays sober and improve their lives and stop hurting themselves and others, that’s awesome. What works for me won’t work for everyone.
The true addict and alcoholic—the one who can’t stop no matter what they try on their own—can still find sobriety if they follow a program of action with the same rigorousness with which a burning man seeks water as long as it’s the right program for them.
It can be done.
For some addicts and alcoholics, Suboxone is a method of staying off hard drugs and drink. It doesn’t work for everyone though. Here’s my experience with Suboxone.