A Man Convinced

“A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.” This old quote is one of my favorites and a favorite of a dear colleague of mine who has been in the addiction field 43 years, Trey Cryer. I’ve been in the field 30 years, so between us we have 73 years and have come to the same conclusion embodied in the quote. You can’t force someone’s motivation to change.

Almost weekly some distraught mother or wife will call me seeking the BIG secret to get her son, husband, or daughter into treatment. Alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, spending or some other substance or process is running the show and moving the person perilously close to a cliff of destruction. What’s really going on is the caller is on high alert to the imminent danger and they are in full response mode to make something in the world stop–in this case, the addict’s behavior and more generally, the hold the addiction has on them. But what’s being overlooked is the fact that no one can force another’s motivation. The addict is not yet convinced and is of the same “opinion” still.

There is a decisional balance going on deep inside every addicted person. And there is a time when this balance can start to swing toward the side of the ledger labeled: “the negatives about addiction plus the good things about living life clean and sober”. But it follows its own timing and trajectory in each person. It can’t be manufactured, manipulated, or willed into being by another, no matter how close they may be. And it’s unpredictable. The yo-yoing can go on for quite awhile. Witness the resistance to going for treatment or going back into treatment or needing many treatments to finally stop. Addicts will often try to sidestep or bargain with the necessity of coming off the drug. They’ll try to reduce consumption, they’ll leave programs early, they’ll avoid professionals and do their own jury-rigged regimen; they’ll substitute a less harmful or more justifiable drug in place of their drug of choice (which merely develops a cross-over addiction). They are moving up and down the ladder of motivation, between pre-contemplation (my life is fine), contemplation (part of me would like to get sober, part of me thinks I’m OK with what I’m doing), and preparation (I know I have to change, but I’m not sure how to go about it). This can go on for some time, always stopping short of action–actually getting into treatment and ceasing intake of all drugs and addictive processes.

It takes awhile to develop an ear for where a person is on their motivational ladder and many professionals know how to match their wording to the stage. Teaching how is beyond the scope of a short blog article. But I would encourage family members to sharpen their ears to the following: the gathering awareness of the need to change, the readiness for it, along with the downside of staying impaired. Listen for these starting to show up in an addict’s language apart from being prodded or goaded by others. It is not something under your control. Just remember, “A man (or woman) convinced against their will is of the same opinion still.” This is your best guide for getting through the crisis intact. Do not get swept up in either pessimism or optimism. Just reaffirm your support whenever the addict’s sees it more clearly and their emerging plan to move ahead toward health. Meanwhile, take care of yourself because there’s no one who can tell you for sure how long the yo-yoing will continue or whether the addict truly has reached the top rung on their motivational ladder and that this will be the time that sticks.

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