My Wonderfully Nonscientific Approach to Addiction Recovery

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.

Red and blue substances in transparent test tubes

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.

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6 thoughts on “My Wonderfully Nonscientific Approach to Addiction Recovery

  1. I can be cynical, too, at times about the “medical-industrial complex” that says just let us tell you what’s wrong with you, the label you are going to wear and the identity you acquire from this label, and what you have to buy from us to fix it. The monk’s method to help one get clean makes sense, because it seems like you would have to directly face yourself, there is nowhere you can hide when you are undergoing this purification. At least that is my impression. I am happy for you that you encountered this help, and your testimony has much to say about the efficacy of this method for severe addiction. You are a brave man.

  2. I agree. The rehab industry has to be around a billion or so a year. It has to be an illness or insurance won’t cover it. As far as I know a person is as likely to quit drinking on their own as they are to be saved by treatment.
    The NIAAA paid for a study that claimed 24.4% of people have spontaneous or natural recoveries.
    As soon as people figure out that drinking is bullshit for them, they quit. The may get a little help but mostly it is them deciding not to drink anymore.

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for the comment. I think people who recover without the help recovery industry could make an important contribution to improving the situation, the problem is that the fact they don’t get involved in the recovery community means they usually fall off the radar.

  3. Yes, it’s not what most people would call a disease, as people can just choose to quit. That is demonstrable. If you can show that sacred vows and monk’s magic brews actually works consistently for everyone, then it is science. In other words, it is how the universe works and not just something from the imagination. The problem is demonstrating it.

    “Interacting with my environment and listening to my body,” also is science, observation and evidence. My point is while there may have been a psychological affect of the ceremony and making a vow I think it is essentially a placebo, and this time you simply have been making the a mental choice not to continue the behavior.

    1. Thanks Rigal – to be honest, science has played no part in my escape from addiction (unless you count turning me into a victim), so the idea of ‘psychological effects’ and ‘placebo’ don’t mean much to me. It would be like a religious fundamentalist asking me to explain my recovery using terms from the bible. I just can’t see how this jargon can add any value – especially considering the results of scientific dabbling in addiction so far are a long way from impressive.

      To be clear – I’m not looking for any scientific validation, so I have no interest in demonstrating anything – I just talk about what works for me.

      The word ‘placebo’ gets thrown around a lot, but I’m not sure how naming something using jargon actually explains it away. Is there a scientific consensus on the placebo effect and how precisely it works? Or is it more about trying to fit unexplained effects into an existing paradigm? I worked as a nurse in trauma and palliative care where treating pain is of huge importance. I’ve researched the placebo effect and the usual attempts of explanation involve vagueness like “one theory suggests…” or “it may be something to do with…” and so on.

      … you simply have been making the a mental choice not to continue the behavior.

      In scientific terms – who is it that is making a mental choice not to continue the behavior? Is there a ghost in the machine? How can a lump of meat make a choice to break free of an addiction?

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