The idea of control is one of the greatest obstacles to recovery for any addict. Loss of control, struggling to control, resistance to control — all are frequent topics at Twelve-Step meetings, and often produce lots of confusion.
Control as Illusion
No one really has control over people, or of major situations or events, or ever will. History has demonstrated that the harder dictators try to maintain control of a nation, the more violently they will be overthrown. The more one tries to control another’s addiction, the greater the likelihood that addiction will disrupt their relationship. When you look at how impossible it is to control your own or someone else’s behavior or beliefs, you may begin to see that control is nothing but an illusion.
Obstacle to Step One This illusion is a real obstacle to the acceptance of Step One, which says that you are powerless over your addiction, and your life has become unmanageable. The addict tries to hold up this mask of control, saying “Hell no! I can handle it!” As long as addicts hang on to this idea of control, they will be stuck on Step One, unable to progress in recovery.
Most addicts can understand when others say, “The harder I tried, the worse it became.” Why is it so hard to discard this destructive model? Perhaps because abandoning it is so threatening to the disease of addiction. Another major reason, for most addicts, is their history with authority ﬁgures, terror at feeling out of control, and the intoxication that comes with the illusion of power.
Dysfunctional families Those who come from dysfunctional families usually have a great deal of difﬁculty surrendering control. If they grew up in a family where they learned to survive by taking “control” of situations, by developing survival skills to cope, then they are likely to experience intense fear at the thought of somebody else, even a Higher Power, running the show. In fact, the skills that kept them alive, emotionally if not physically, are the very skills that could be interfering with their recovery today.
Inﬂuence Another problem with letting go of the illusion of control may be not having an alternative model to understand ordinary life situations. If you do not have control, then what do you have?
A good alternate concept is inﬂuence. While you cannot control anyone else, you can and will inﬂuence the lives of everyone you meet. The idea of inﬂuence is more accurate, and is easy to understand in terms of a broad spectrum from almost negligible inﬂuence (over a casual acquaintance) to very profound (such as a spouse or child). It also relieves you of some of the expectation that you are responsible for those over whom you have some inﬂuence (rather than control).
Responsibility Using the model of inﬂuence instead of control also makes it easier to understand responsibility. Certainly you have responsibilities to others in your life — your parents, spouse, children, employees or employer, friends, and others. You may legitimately accept some responsibility to inﬂuence their lives in a positive way. Responsibility becomes almost deadly when you assume that you can control others. This is a setup for frustration, fear, excessive guilt, and a sense of failure. For an addict, it can also provide a wonderful excuse to drink, to use, to gamble, or to eat compulsively.
Control as Addiction
Extreme obsession with control can easily become a compulsion or even an addiction. Many people who are treated for codependency are suffering from this obsession with the illusion of control. There is probably even a biochemistry associated with it that normally balances the addictive state of fantasy. An extreme version of this state or direction of addiction can be seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) This is a true personality disorder that is far beyond the usual compulsion and obsession of addiction. Compulsive handwashers, stove-checkers, and crack-avoiders are examples. Many researchers believe that OCD is caused by neurochemical imbalances.
Obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) This is a common personality disorder that may overlap with OCD, but usually involves obsessive and compulsive tendencies rather than being really stuck in the behavior. For example, a person with OCPD may justify a lot of time making lists, planning, organizing, etc. Someone said the P that separates OCD from OCPD stands for perfectionism.
Codependency From what we know of addiction, it makes sense that addicts could produce these imbalances out of their addictive behavior. Codependency and other family illness often involve obsessive, compulsive behavior.
Checklist mindset Many addicts ask, “What can I do?” and expect a pat answer, or a checklist. There is a subtle expectation that if they follow instructions carefully they will gain control. Also it is then not their responsibility if it fails. This kind of expectation is not compatible with the First Step, or with spirituality, which includes the awareness that you will never be God.
The good news is that you do not have to let go of control, only the illusion of control. You never had control anyway. And you have to let go to experience the transformation that happens in recovery. The ultimate solution to the issue of control is Step Three, turning your will and your life over to the care of your Higher Power -- whatever you understand that Higher Power (or the Program) to be.
Updated 13 Sep 2015
Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.