Does Addiction Absolve You of Accountability?

Merriam-Webster defines addiction as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.”

In less scientific terms, much of American society tends to perceive addiction as a dependence on drugs or alcohol that essentially takes control of the user’s life.

alcoholics anonymous and accountability

Many of the more prevalent 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) build a foundation of treatment on the tenet that individuals who struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol benefit from ceding control of their behaviors to a “higher power,” whether that power is God, a program sponsor, the program itself, or some other spiritual being. Sharing the responsibility for your sobriety with someone other than yourself helps alleviate some of the pressure that comes with making such a significant lifestyle change.

However, critics of AA and other 12-step approaches say removing personal accountability to put your faith in a higher power doesn’t work, citing as proof the 5 to 10 percent success rate of AA. But when anonymity is an integral part of the program and “success” can mean anything from not using drugs or alcohol at all to trying not to use and regularly attending meetings and working the 12 steps, a clear-cut rate of effectiveness can be difficult to determine.

addiction approaches to treatment

The most effective addiction treatment likely pulls elements from a number of approaches:

  • belief in a higher power (and/or support from others),
  • the belief that the individual ultimately has the power to make lasting changes in their life,
  • ongoing therapy from a trained mental health professional.

Like so many situations in life, addiction treatment isn’t black and white, this always works, that never works. There are many “shades of gray,” and what helps one person succeed doesn’t mean it will resonate with others.

addiction and self-reliance

Achieving the type of personal transformation required to leave a familiar life built on relying on drugs and alcohol requires some level of self-reliance. Those struggling with substance abuse issues need to be able to say, “I don’t like how my life is going, and I have the power to change it” for 12-step programs to have a positive impact. And if surrounding themselves with others who are walking through similar life experiences makes them feel better about their struggle, offers peer support, and helps them build a strong, resilient path toward long-term sobriety, then trusting their healing — at least in part — to a higher power is time well spent.

Yes, individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol are accountable for their actions, and yes, it sometimes helps to enlist a higher power in the journey to recovery. There’s a science to attaining sobriety, but there’s an art to discovering the approach that’s the best fit for you or someone you care about.

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