Is Addiction A Choice?

“God, grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change; 

The courage to change the things I can;

 And the wisdom to know the difference.”

-The Serenity Prayer- 

Me and Bubba

Addiction is a choice. Addiction is selfish. I used to think those thoughts. Then 12 years ago, my thoughts began to evolve.

There are some things in life that only we can control. Then there are other things in life that we are completely powerless over. Part of my journey has been learning the difference between the things I can control and then the things I cannot.

January 29th, 2009. That was the day that I got “the call.” It is the call no one wants. It is the call most people don’t expect. The call in which you have no power and no control over when it comes, but one way or another, it is inevitable at some point in your life. I just didn’t expect this one to ever come.

Life on life’s terms I guess.

It started off as a typical, sunny, Southern California day. I was on a school bus riding back to campus with a couple of the soccer players on my team. A bumpy bus ride on the 405 freeway. One of LA’s most widely traveled and busy roads. Sitting in some traffic, I was gazing out of the window, and reflecting on the fact that we had just gotten our asses handed to us on the soccer field.

I glanced down at my phone and I saw I had several missed calls from Arkansas area codes. My home state. Three messages which was rather odd. I usually didn’t check messages or use my phone with players around, but there were only two girls left and they were all of the way at the back of the bus being giggly 8th graders. And something in my gut said I needed to check these messages.

The first call was from my nephew. He never calls me. However, there was no sense of panic in his voice. Just a matter of fact, flat toned, “Hey Mel. Call me when you can.” No sense of urgency. Perhaps it was a voice that was in shock. 

I looked towards the back of the bus. The girls continued to chat and giggle and gave me a wave. I waved back and giggled with them. I turned around in my seat and I checked the next message.

The next message was from my sister-in-law. Still no sense of urgency in her voice. Just a brief message asking me to call her when I had a chance. Now my curiosity had peaked. What in the world was this all about?

I had to check that last message.

This one felt a bit more concerning. It was a message from a detective. I had never gotten a call from a detective before. I imagine that is a good thing. The message said, “This is Detective Brown.  We are calling about your brother. Please call me when you can.” My first thought was that there must be some mistake. That they had called the wrong person. My next thought was that my brother had gotten into trouble and needed help.

The thought of what they were about to tell me never crossed my mind. 

My brother had died. That was the call. My big brother who always looked out for me was lying lifeless on the ground in his home at the age of 38. On January 29th, 2009, oxycodone, otherwise known as “Hillbilly Heroin,” claimed victory over my brother’s life. And I truly never saw this ending coming.

Oxycodone is basically the off-brand of Oxycontin. It was given the nickname “hillbilly heroin” because it is cheaper to buy and more popular in rural areas. According to an article on the National Institute of Drug Abuse website, “Since 2018, every day 128 people die in the U.S. after overdosing on opioids.”

The article goes on to say, “Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients that are prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.” With my dad being a pharmacist, prescriptions were more than easy for our family. And with a back injury in 2000, my brother’s journey with “hillbilly heroin” began as an innocent prescription.

Addiction is a choice.  Addiction is selfish. These were thoughts that would race through my head as I faced the death of my brother. I was so incredibly frustrated with the way my brother lived the end of his life. Through the anger phase of my grief and my lack of knowledge about addiction, I shouted aloud many times. Things such as, “How could you have done this to your kids? Your wife? Your family? All of us?” I had thought for many years that he chose this. That he was just being selfish. Choosing addiction over his family. Choosing this addiction over his own life. It made no sense.

There has seemingly been a stigma around alcohol and drug abuse. One that attacks moral character and suggests that the person must be weak, selfish or a “loser” if they cannot just quit. “Why couldn’t he just stop?” I would ask. “He is so selfish.” I would think.

It wasn’t until I faced my own road with addiction, that I realized I had it all wrong. A different addiction (thank God), but seemingly the same in many regards. Realizing that if, in fact, addiction was a choice, like I had once believed, then why couldn’t I control my own drinking? Why was it so hard for me to make that choice to stop? Maybe a once seemingly selfish act wasn’t so selfish after all.

More and more research has been pointing to the fact that addiction is a disease. A dis-ease of the brain that is not a choice.  Our brains are often seeking out pleasurable experiences with good reason. Who doesn’t like to feel good? And certain substances can trick our brains into thinking we are happy. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that relays messages to our brain. So, after feeling good from a substance, dopamine runs off and tells our brain, “Yo! This stuff is amazing. You better keep taking it if you want to feel good.” Dopamine has been duped. Maybe they should call it “dupamine” when referring to addiction. I imagine that is how a neuroscientist would explain it.

My brother was a good guy. A loving husband, father, son, and brother. My brother was not weak. My brother did not lack moral character. My brother was addicted. And my brother was powerless.

It makes perfect sense why someone, like myself, would think addiction is a choice. Because, perhaps,  if it is a choice, then maybe we can help them choose not to be addicted. The illusion of control. It seems as though our brains are also always searching for ways to be in control. Because if we are in control, then things feel certain. And if things feel certain, then we feel safe and protected. And if we feel safe and protected, then all is well.

Nothing about the mind of someone struggling with addiction is certain. Truthfully, nothing in our immediate reality is one hundred percent certain. And when we cling and attach to control and certainty, we, ourselves,  suffer. Only to find out later, we never even had control in the first place. An exhausting cycle. Practicing the art of non-attachment is a daily reprieve for me. 

I also used to take his addiction personally. My brain does a beautiful job of making things about me when they have nothing to do with me at all. For years I wondered. Should I have done this? Should I have done that? Did I do something wrong? Could I have saved him? Should I have said more? Should I have said less? For years, I would wake up “shoulding” all over myself. 

My brother’s addiction was not about me. My brother’s addiction was far out of my control. 

Again, we have to remind our own brains that there are some things that we can control and some things that we cannot. If my brother could not control and did not choose his addiction, then none of us could have prevented him from continuing to choose it. None of us could have helped him to control it. And certainly none of us could have “saved” him. 

 I could not have changed what happened. I am powerless over the outcome of anyone else’s journey. I can love them and support them. But, I cannot save them. And someone else’s road to recovery is not my baby to rock. (My Arkansas friend says that a lot. Southern sayings are the best.) 

I am not saying powerlessness is an excuse for destructive behavior. Trust me. I am just saying that if an addict cannot control their own addiction. Well, then maybe it isn’t possible for us to control it either. Sometimes they need more help than we can offer. Accepting this truth finally released me from years of shame and guilt. Thinking there was something that I could have done. That I could have saved my brother. 

I was powerless over his powerlessness. 

The American Addiction Center states, “The risk/reward center of their brain has been rewired with repeated reinforcement of these cravings.” No matter how competitive I am, I can not compete with the brain of someone who is struggling with addiction. Especially if addiction is a disease. 

I suppose you can prevent someone from taking drugs and drinking. But, in the end, it is up to that person to choose to stop. It is up to that person to participate in their own recovery. It is up to that person to fully engage and dive into the inner work that must take place to walk the road of long term sobriety. Sobriety is an inside job. And no one else can do that work except for the person struggling with addiction.

I know my brother did not want things to end the way that they did. If my brother had in fact had a choice, I am sure he would have written a different ending. But, again, addiction is not a choice. It is a sign of powerlessness over something we thought at one time we could control. And oftentimes throughout our addiction, we still wrestle with this illusion that we are controlling it. 

Listen, I didn’t take my first drink and think, “OMG. I cannot wait to disappoint all of my friends. It is going to be amazing when I crash my car. And not just crash it, but TOTAL it! LMAO! OMG! Hahaha. So hilarious. Yes! It is going to be so great! I AM SO PUMPED FOR ALL OF THIS INCOMPREHENSIBLE DEMORALIZATION!  WOOOOHOOOOOOO!!” 

Sounds silly. Right? Well, I guess so is saying that addiction is a choice. Sure, we choose that first drink or drug, but beyond that we don’t typically set out to sabotage our life and scare the crap out of everyone around us. Notice I did say typically. I cannot speak for everyone and their brains. But, I can speak for the enormous amount of people that have shared their stories with me over the past 8+ years. That choice we initially made to pick up a drink or take a drug in the very beginning, becomes powerlessness over something we thought we could control in the end.

So, is addiction a choice? I cannot know for sure. But, what I do know for sure, is I that I know I did not choose it. And what I do know for sure is that my brother did not choose it either.

Through the pain and the tears of my own recovery, I have come to know that I never had control over my brother’s addiction. I have acknowledged that his own addiction was the ultimate cause of his death. Not something I did or I didn’t do. This truth has set me free me in so many ways. 

Through my own healing, I have learned to let go of all of the shame and guilt as it wasn’t mine to carry in the first place. It didn’t happen overnight. But, I can assure you, that it happened and I am living proof that there is hope after carrying a heavy load for so long. I finally put down the baggage. And then I finally began to unpack it. 

Some people walk through the pain and addiction and make it out on the other side. And some people get stuck in their pain and remain there for an eternity. Perhaps catching a glimpse of the light, but never fully immersing themselves in it. We can certainly love them and support them. However, their journey does not rest solely in our hands. 

When I began to accept this truth, I could physically feel my shoulders drop and my body soften. Releasing myself from this responsibility that I thought was mine, was a huge step forward in my own recovery process. It was a huge step forward in my own healing as well.

I do not know why some people “get” it and others do not.  The brain is a fascinating blob. Acceptance has become the key for me. I have come to peace with the not knowing. My uncle said that once. It was about something else, but it can be applied here. He said, “I think you are just going to have to come to peace within yourself that you may never know.” I may never know the details and the whys of my brother’s death. I may never know why he didn’t “get it.” 

The one thing that I do know for sure, is that today and in this moment, I have my life. And I am going to do my best to live it. 

Addiction is not a choice. Addiction is not selfish. Addiction is a disease.

There are some things in life that only we can control. Then there are other things in life that we are completely powerless over. And for me, I have learned that my brother’s death and addiction were both completely out of my control. And for me, I will continue my journey learning the difference between the things I can control and then the things I cannot.

Onward and upward. I love you Bubba. Always.

“God, grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change; 

The courage to change the things I can;

 And the wisdom to know the difference.”

-The Serenity Prayer- 

11 thoughts on “Is Addiction A Choice?

  1. Thank you. Beautifully written. I’m sorry. Keep writing. Keep doing the inner work of feeling and putting down the baggage too heavy to bear. Keep living

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and I’m sorry to hear about your situation. It is hard to watch and surrender things that are out of your control. Praying for you and the one you are close to. Sending love. 💜🙏🏻

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I do understand and totally empathise with your situation. Real love means that help can at times be difficult. Tough love, by that i mean do not aid the addict in any way ever. Always be there for emotional support but never for assissting the addiction. I will pray, bless you

        Liked by 1 person

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