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Drug Addiction

William Dubin, Ph.D.
Helping people cope with Addictions and Impulse Control Disorders

Steering Versus Drifting

William Dubin, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 2nd 2010

In George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, the Devil asks Don Juan why he bothers learning about himself and what he really wants, and Don Juan responds:


"Why, to be able to choose the line of greatest advantage instead of yielding in the direction of the least resistance. And there you have our difference: to be in hell is to drift, to be in heaven is to steer."

woman thinkingIf you do not steer, your actions will be dependent upon the cause-and-effect principles that effect the Psyche1 rather than upon your interests and principles. For example, the Problem of Immediate Gratification [the PIG] results from the fact that a small but immediate payoff has a much greater influence on behavior than a larger but delayed payoff. This causes a problem: People knowingly trade what is dear to them [health, wealth, relationships] for the trivial but immediate payoff of using an addictive incentive2.

Better would be to steer so you could choose the most advantageous path. However, as you may have noticed, getting the creature you inhabit to perform as intended can be challenging-especially during crises of stress and/or temptation.

This article is about learning to steer. It is designed to help high functioning individuals develop their strength of will3 so that they are able to steer effectively, even through crises of stress and temptation that would cause less prepared individuals to relapse. The ability to steer emerges gradually during a passage that no one can take for you nor spare you. During this passage, you will develop an appreciation of several weird and nasty traps.

Animals do not consciously steer; they react to local conditions. What steers the mouse is not its best interests, but the cheese that baits the trap. Humans who appreciate how a mousetrap works are not taken in by it. However, if Mickey likes cheese but is trying to lose weight by restricting cheese intake he will probably be taken in by a different kind of trap. Perversely, the intention, "not to eat cheese" has the effect of increasing many dieters' desire for cheese4.

Over the years, I have accompanied thousands of individuals on this journey and have seen many variations of this perverse trap. Each of my collaborators is different and has created a unique puzzle for us to solve. By the time they sought my services most have relapsed many times, despite the best efforts of self-help groups, treatment programs, and their own sincere vows to change their ways. As a consequence of their repeated failure to prevent relapse, they tend to begin our collaboration with the tacit belief that they are bad, sick or defective. This demoralizing view is widely accepted by friends, family, and the treatment community.

This is unfortunate, because attributing the cause of failure to a defect or disease of the person, rather than to a characteristic of the task, makes it less likely the person will do what is necessary to achieve good outcome. People develop an Incentive Use Disorder not because they are deviant but because they are all too human.

The individuals with whom I work tend to be good problem solvers who generally accomplish what they set out to accomplish5. My decision to dedicate my career to this specialty was not random. As a human myself, I have my own history with the PIG, and I can testify: It looks different than it feels!

Each of us has a unique genetic predisposition, past learning history, and current social reality. The cause-and-effect principles that pertain to this bio-psycho-social creature [in your case, you] causes it to react in predictable ways to certain triggering events. Whatever caused previous relapses is likely to cause future relapses unless you develop the ability to steer your way through high-risk situations.

If you choose to steer, please be aware that:

  • Motivation is fluid and changes with local conditions. A lapse occurs when local conditions influence you to use the incentive despite your intention not to. The exercise of will occurs when you act as intended despite the pull of local stressors and temptations.

  • Relapse is demoralizing and motivates a search for an external rescue. As we will see, escaping dependence on an external source of control is complicated by assuming the passive patient role and accepting a treatment provider as the effective agent of change. Your outcome will depend upon how you perform during the crises that you will have to face alone. You, not an external agent, must be the one responsible for steering the bio-psycho-social creature you inhabit.


1 - The Psyche = the soul or the self. (Psychology is the Psyche's way of learning about the Psyche.) 2 - An incentive = a substance [food, alcohol, cocaine, etc.] or activity [gambling, pornography use, shopping, etc.] that delivers a payoff. Incentives that can deliver immediate pleasure or relief are special in that they can corrupt an individual. Throughout this kit, the generic term, "incentive" will be used. Please replace it as you read with the specific incentive that influences you. 3 - Will = The force exerted to over-ride the influence of local conditions and act as you intend, or to act in accord with your interests and principles. 4 - Counter-regulatory motivation is described in detail in Chapter 2.2 5 - My clients are not a cross section of the population, but are selected by their ability to afford my fees. The information and tools presented in this kit have been developed with and designed for individuals with at least college level reading and thinking skills, and is probably not useful for other populations.

William Dubin, Ph.D.William Dubin, Ph. D. is licensed by the state of Texas as a Psychologist, and is specialized in the treatment of addictions, having received the Certificate of Proficiency in the Treatment of Alcohol and Other Psychoactive Substance Use Disorders from the American Psychological Association. Readers in the Austin, Texas area dealing with psychological issues (such as depression, anxiety or anger) or "incentive use" issues (otherwise known as addictions) may contact Dr. Dubin for face-to-face consultation and treatment through his practice, Psychological Assessment Referral and Treatment Services, online at Dr. Dubin's PsychARTs office may be reached via telephone at 512-343-8307

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