Science played no part in my final recovery from addiction. Instead I got help at a Buddhist temple where the monks told me I didn’t have to be an alcoholic any longer. They offered a simple approach that would be considered woo by the more scientifically-minded because it involved making a sacred vow, drinking secret herbal medicine, and vomiting into a gutter while the monks applauded. I doubt this approach would even be legal in the west, but it worked for me, and I’ve got a wonderful life now.
The Scientific Approach to Addiction Recovery
I struggled with my alcohol problem for almost two decades before I gave up the alcoholic identity. I saw the doctors, took the medicines, spoke to the therapists, went to the meetings, and found a home-away-from-home in the rehabs. I learned that I had a special type of brain disease that I could never recover from – I was taught how to see myself as a victim who at best could aspire to be a ‘recovering alcoholic’ because there was no cure – although the science journalists kept promising that it was just around the corner. I also learned that relapse was a normal part of my condition, and this offered me a wonderful ‘get out of jail free’ card that I used liberally.
I don’t see any evidence that science/medicine has so far proven effective at treating addiction, and I worry that the medicalization of the problem is making things much worse in some ways. In my case, I felt brainwashed into believing there was something fundamentally wrong with me, and it made me feel powerless and at the mercy of the experts. Sure, medical supervision may be needed in the case of severe withdrawal symptoms – although I can’t comment much on this because I usually managed to rattle along by myself.
I write regularly about addiction, and it seems like every couple of weeks I come across a story touting a ‘new medical cure’. It’s great that scientists are interested enough to research the topic, but the effectiveness of their contribution to a solution is often grossly exaggerated. Of course, this isn’t just the fault of science journalism – there are plenty of charlatans out there who like to claim the ‘approved by science’ label. To be honest, when I hear about this type of scientific endorsement, my gut response is to think ‘here we go again’. It seems to me that the popularity of the medicalized-approach to addiction treatment is faith in promissory-science – faith that the guys in the lab-coats are going to have it all figured out eventually.
I don’t view my previous alcohol-enthusiasm as a medical problem because it didn’t require a medical solution. I trained and worked as a nurse, so I do have respect for modern medicine, but I also know it can be a bit hit-and-miss – it is not uncommon for treatments to make conditions worse or trigger new symptoms. There are limits to what medicine can treat, but I’ll be happy to eat my words if they do discover an effective remedy. I just won’t hold my breath.
Questioning science has become a modern form of blasphemy. The rise of scientism means that any skepticism directed towards this approach to learning about the world can easily earn the dreaded label of anti-science – a sort of ‘you are either with us or against us’ attitude. I actually love science, but I see it as a tool and not the only way of gaining knowledge – I learn far more from interacting with my environment and listening to my body.
I stopped being an alcoholic by letting go of this identity. If alcoholism is a type of medical condition, it’s was a pretty odd one. How many diabetics can be cured by just deciding not to be this way anymore? Don’t get me wrong – if a scientific approach to addiction helps some people that is great news. It just didn’t work for me.