Drug or alcohol addiction is a primary, chronic disease that is defined as the repeated use of substances that alters brain reward, motivation, memory and related functions. Significant biological, psychological, social and spiritual changes occur through substance addiction which can make a person pursue reward in substances rather than other behaviors, activities or relationships. An addiction is characterized by an impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to abstain and diminished recognition of problems associated with their addiction. Like other diseases, addictions are characterized by cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment, an addiction will progress and can result in disability, secondary diseases or premature death.

Willpower is defined as the self discipline or self control of an individual. It is the ability to resist temptation, not be influenced by other people. Willpower is the inner strength and resolve that a person has. Willpower is often defined as the strength of character which may be related to an individuals ability to commit to certain causes or lifestyle choices and their resolve to resist harmful or lazy things. It can be strengthened through personal development, skill training and testing. Through this strengthening, individuals can gain the ability to overcome adversities, resist drugs, alcohol and even have a better lifestyle.

Substance Abuse and Addiction

An addiction is the result of repeated and intentional use of a substance. Substance abusers use drugs or alcohol for any number of reasons including from wanting a new experience, peer pressure, for fun or for more serious reasons such as way to overcome significant personal issues. In some cases a person may not be aware that they are addicted to a substance until it is too late, such as in the case of using a prescription medicine or over the counter drug.

When using a drug or drinking alcohol for the first time, an individual does not seek out the opportunity to become an addict. They take the drug to feel different, to relax or to become energised. But as a person uses the drug more frequently and in higher doses, the tolerance to the effects of the drug increases and a dependence establishes in the body. Dependence on a drug is known to change how brain processing occurs. Psychoactive substances alter the chemical connections in the body and change behavior and emotional responses. A person finds themselves thinking, feeling and behaving differently as they use the substance more often and in higher doses. As an addiction develops, the drug takes over their body and they desire, crave and need the substance to exist.

Addiction as a Choice

Addiction as a disease of the brain and body is a long and established position in the medical field. However there are an increasing number of researchers and critics, including author’s Jeffrey Schaler and Gene Heyman who have an opposing view. Studies and research performed by these authors and others, has highlighted the idea of choice in relation to taking a drug and making the decision to stop using a drug. Environment, willpower and genetics are considered factors that support a persons choice to use or not use, but they reject the theory of addiction as a disease and suggest that addiction is the voluntary choice of the individual.

Researchers who support the addiction-is-a-choice model place full responsibility for an addiction in the hands of the addict. By using the model of disease to explain addiction, they insist that a substance abuser is given the opportunity to blame others for their addiction. Addicts are allowed to continue to use drugs and alcohol, fail to meet obligations and have their behavior excused. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous come under fire for allowing addicts to excuse what they do and not face up to their personal failings and weaknesses.

Willpower to Overcome an Addiction

Critics aside, it is a recognized medical position that a lack of willpower is not the cause of an addiction. Years of studies by government organizations like the NIAAA, private researchers and medical doctors have shown that a problem with drugs and alcohol can occur in response to a traumatic experience, genetic predisposition, mental illness or environmental or social factors. A person may have poor levels of self esteem, self worth and lack the ability to resist, but this is not the only reason for an addiction developing.

Willpower alone will not drive a person to overcome an addiction. Interventions, cognitive behavioral therapy , medical treatment, motivational enhancement therapy and family support are some of the known treatments for addiction. Resolve and commitment to give up a lifestyle of drugs and alcohol is required but it will not alone help a chronically addicted individual. An addict needs support from family, friends, employers, skill development to help them to be able to know how to deal with triggers, education and also in some cases medical treatment. They need to deal with the major emotional or traumatic events that may have contributed to their addictive lifestyle in healthier ways. It is not simply a matter of giving up when they want to or snapping out of the addiction.

Maintaining Sobriety

The challenge of a clean and sober life is a difficult one for all addicts. Taking steps to initially change their life from one that included drugs or alcohol is just one aspect of a life in recovery. Long term sobriety requires a person to be committed, recognize triggers and seek help when temptation is around. They need to use newly developed skills to avoid high risk situations, engage with people who are not substance abusers, deal with boredom and overcome emotional or traumatic experiences. An addict must also recognize that relapse is part of the road to recovery and to take steps to prevent it if possible.

Up to 60 percent of drug addicts will experience at least one relapse during their road to recovery. Because drugs and alcohol alter the body chemistry and pleasure reward pathways in the brain, unlearning these behaviors can be a long process. In some cases, such as with cocaine, the substance can remain in the body for a long time causing people to have cravings for the drug for many years. Addiction is not just the physical dependence on a substance but the psychological dependence also and both need to be treated.