Willpower Doesn't Keep Me Sober

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Willpower Doesn't Keep Me Sober

By Kristance Harlow 03/21/17

When it came to 12-step programs, I was immediately turned off. I was not about to give up my self-will to some esoteric supernatural being.

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A young woman holding her hand up to refuse an offered beer

I've gotten a significant amount of side eye from acquaintances who hear I quit drinking the day after a binge. They think either I have immense willpower or didn't actually have a problem with drinking. The truth is, I have awful willpower and had a huge drinking problem.

I knew I had a problem long before I got sober, but I was stubbornly against the notion that it was something I couldn’t control. I used to be able to have just one drink, then I would just have two, eventually I couldn’t control it. I would feel the buzz and didn’t want to lose it. I wanted—needed—to see how far that buzz could take me. I have blacked out more times than I can count because once I took a seat on the rollercoaster, I would refuse to get off the ride.

I read about different kinds of support for the struggling drinker. I was not going to follow a plan blindly without knowing the ins and outs. Maybe I could educate myself enough about alcohol misuse and find an intellectual loophole. I was annoyed by the suggestion that I should never drink again. I wanted to find a solution that would give me the ability to stop drinking after two drinks. Surely, self-control and moderate drinking were skills I could learn. If someone would just tell me the secret, I would be able to solve the puzzle and be cured. If I tried harder, if I was punished enough to learn discipline, if I went to enough therapy…if…if…

When it came to 12-step programs, I was immediately turned off by the first three steps. All versions of the steps were a riff on being powerless over booze, needing help to get better, and believing in the will of some higher power rather than self-will. I was not about to give up my self-will to some esoteric supernatural being. I told myself that was not reality since no human could actually know anything about the truth of existence beyond our limited scope of view. I needed to get back to reality, not dive deeper into the imaginary. The last thing I thought I should do was to hand over my will to some deity that has been named and blamed by humans for millennia. I didn’t want to play pretend.

I guess I wanted to be like everyone else. I thought maybe I was like everyone else. I zeroed in on portrayals of beautiful women with successful careers and thriving social lives. They all seemed to drink a couple glasses of wine after work, all while maintaining their health. I watched as friends of mine grew up and moved away from drunkenness and into casual drinking. I saw them having cocktails on vacation and getting engaged with champagne toasts. I saw them Instagramming pictures of their favorite craft beers and celebrating promotions with drinks. They had children and bought homes; sometimes they drank. I wanted to be like them.

I was striving for a life that wasn’t mine. The social butterfly with her dozens of friends flocking to her confident and bright aura, that was not me. I only liked parties when I started drinking, because it would temporarily shed layers of my cocoon. Eventually, alcohol dissolved all of my protections and I was left exposed at rock bottom.

What I see now is that I did not indulge, I did not treat myself, implying it was only for a special occasion. I was never acting in moderation with sprinkles of indulgent choices. I wasn’t celebrating with a toast, I was ordering a bottle of wine and drinking it all myself. I wasn’t going on vacation to drink, I was drinking to take a permanent leave of absence from myself. I am an all or nothing person, either I would get drunk or not drink at all. It was all the worse if I tried to control my alcohol consumption. In sobriety, I have realized it is much easier to not pick up the first drink than to try and wield self-control to be a moderate drinker.

Drinking is far from the only thing that I lack the ability to moderate. Put chocolate in front of me and I will absolutely devour it, unless it's mixed with coconut or mint (controversial, I know). For three years now, I have logged in to my favorite iPhone game every single day. Every single day, that is ridiculous. The fastest way to get me to do something is to tell me I have to do the opposite thing, because I will absolutely not do what I’m told to do. In 2006, I wrote in my journal, “I was in the library for 12 hours and do you have any idea how much I got done? I finished, aka started, NOTHING! I cannot find the willpower to just do what I have to do. Stop making excuses and sabotaging yourself.” Fast forward 10 years and the same patterns repeat themselves ad infinitum.

My illness was so deeply entrenched that my contradictions were invisible to me. I could stand ardently by the statement that I needed to hold onto my self-will, and in the next breath complain about my total lack of self-control. I suppose it is a convoluted sort of self-sabotage. I act on impulses that are counter to what would be good for me. That is a lot of what my disease is for me, an inability to stop desiring more and a compulsion to fulfill that desire.

My obsession with wielding willpower to stop my compulsive behavior made it nearly impossible to take any responsibility for my life. In my usual all or nothing style, if everything around me was going well then it must be because my good choices led to everything seeming under (my) control. If life was hard and not going according to plan, then it must have been because I fucked up somewhere and it was all my fault.

I have struggled and continue to work towards understanding the differences between taking responsibility and having willpower. Taking responsibility is simply recognizing my agency. Agency is the capacity of someone to make choices. Structure is the system around the agent, made up of all the outside influences that affect the choices the agent can make.

Trying to impose self-will is quite an arrogant and egotistical prospect for me. It is a four-year-old who wants what they want now and if (or more likely when) they don't get what they demand, they throw a fit. My way or the highway. It is the obsessiveness that prevents any effective use of agency.

I cannot control the structure around me, what factors influence my decisions are out of my control. The only thing I am capable of doing is making the best decision possible within the restrictions imposed by the system around me. That has nothing to do with willpower, it’s just about accepting reality.

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