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Was Nancy Reagan right? Can we "Just Say No"? Powerlessness and victimology in addiction recovery


Was Nancy Reagan right?  Can we “Just Say No”? 

Powerlessness and victimology in substance abuse treatment


In the 1980s, Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” slogan was making the rounds and amusing drug users worldwide. Although the first lady offered this approach as a way to keep young people from experimenting with drugs in the first place, she hit on something extremely important. Everyone who uses drugs—whether addicted or not—makes choices every day about whether to continue that behavior, and trying to convince people they are powerless is utterly counterproductive.

Twelve steppers might say that addicted people are powerless while they are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol but are no longer powerless when they abstain, but that’s really not the case either. If complete powerlessness over the lure of the drug were true, alcoholics would take drinks from neighboring tables at a restaurant because they had no control. Dealers would be gunned down in the streets within minutes in order to prevent withdrawal. Everyone has some degree of self-control, and it’s downright silly to think otherwise.

People with addiction issues do not see the subtlety in the powerlessness argument; they see confirmation of their fear that addiction and its accompanying consequences will never end. People tend to believe it without question, and citizens, instructors, doctors, family members, and even government agencies are at least somewhat at fault for it.

I presented a workshop on this subject some time ago and started it with “If you were still in your addiction, and your drug of choice was right in front of you, ready to use, and I was holding a gun to your head telling you I’d shoot you if you put that drug into your body, could you hold yourself back?” The group dismissed the argument, calling it unrealistic, so I tried something else.

“Okay, say the police have just broken down your door and are about to arrest you, but there are some drugs in front of you, could you resist?”

While this man thought he was providing proof of his powerlessness, he uncovered something entirely different: a calculus of drug use. In seconds he had found a justification for using what was in plain view of the police. He had done a cost-benefit analysis in his head. Is there a good reason to do it? Is there a better reason not to do it? How serious might the consequences be? Is there any benefit to “just saying no” at this time?

This hidden equation exists in many behaviors—some large and some small--that we think about curtailing. Dieters calculate whether to cheat, and so do adulterers. Child molesters have control of their actions, too. In many cases, we as a people pretend that the ugliness of the behavior proves that it is compulsive.  It's so ugly that we can't possibly be choosing it.  We have bureaucratized “bad” behavior, and in doing so, we have given it roots. Religious beliefs and community evaluations have taken the place of our own judgment, and behaviors that are accepted and rationalized. “The devil made me do it” is an example of this kind of thinking. “My daddy did it, and they say it’s genetic.” “It’s a disease, and I can’t help myself."

We have become a society of weak-minded people, not because we ARE powerless, but because we BELIEVE we are powerless.  It is self-fulfilling prophecy, and it hampers recovery.  There's a big difference between not having a choice and believing one has no choice, but the results are the same.

When I first heard the “powerlessness” argument, I imagined a bottle running down the street, chasing after the defenseless drinker, throwing him to the ground, and forcing his mouth open. A heroin user discovers a hypodermic needle plunging itself into her flesh and watches it slink off. Cocaine powder wafts in on the wind and enters the nose of the unsuspecting man watching football. It's just not like that.  We argue with ourselves, we justify and rationalize.  We make a decision.

It seems fatuitous to me that we want to put the responsibility for addiction outside ourselves. Even our national drug policies make us out to be unwitting victims by cutting off supply, an impossible task.  If people believe it is out of their hands, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's important that we avoid abdicating personal responsibility for our actions; that burden is what gives us an opportunity for change. If we made a choice in doing it, we can also make a choice in not doing it. It's the very crux of empowerment.

Let me take this one step further. In psychology, strict behaviorists would say that the stimulus (whatever your triggers might be) causes the response (drinking or using drugs). The model was this: S (stimulus) leads to R (response), or SàR. In the late 20th century, cognitive psychologists revolutionized our understanding of learning, saying instead that the brain sees and interprets that stimulus, and the response is imbued with internal and environmental factors, and the model became S-->O-->R, where O is "organism." "Organism" is the contribution of the individual, the processing of information before the response.

This is simplified, obviously, but what I'm getting at is that powerlessness ignores that individual's contribution to learning, and instead relies on straight behaviorism, a framework which is now largely out of vogue in psychological research.  A drink on a neighboring table remains undisturbed, and dealers can sell without being gunned down in the streets.

Our old approach to addiction is flawed, and our success rates provide ample evidence of that fact.  We aim for 20% success and rarely get it.  That's a crime! Good research is being done all the time now, and we will learn much from it someday, but we should also pay attention to what we have known for decades: Believing one can change is essential.

It is difficult to bring change to a task like ours.  People are understandably uncomfortable with transitions, but change we must if we want to figure out how to overcome addictions more effectively.

¡Viva la Revolucion!


Check out this oldie but goodie: The Little Engine That Could

What do YOU want to know about addiction?  I welcome questions and comments!  If your communication is of common interest, I may post a response here at, but only with your expressed permission.  Please post here or you may send email to


  • Regina Garson 5 years ago

    Excellent article with many points well taken, I am certain it will stimulate debate. On a very real level, your arguments are valid. I would like to hear debate on this one.

  • Leslie Basden 5 years ago

    Thank you so much for your comment!

  • Brenda Green - Topeka Freethought Examiner 5 years ago

    Subscribed. Looking forward to reading your posts. I agree with you .... my philosophy toward life: decide it, and then do it.

  • Jane Doeski 4 years ago

    First of all, addiction and habit are not the same thing. Leslie seems to think addiction is just a mind game that responds well to " just say no". The fact is, both alcohol and drugs affect people physically as well as mentally and emotionally. Most ingested substances affect the central nervous system and usually require help before applying "no" to ones verbiage. When one is wrapped up in hard core addiction, choice is limited. People actually die because their body's are screaming for their drug of choice. Or maybe, according to Leslie, they forgot to "just say no".

    This June I will be clean and sober for 28 years. My recovery entailed a 12 step program, AND I did not subscribed to the "god concept" that many (perhaps most) believed was necessary for recovery. Yet it was clearly apparent that my own strategies were not working very well ~ otherwise I wouldn't have sought help now would I? In that sense I was powerless because I could not do it alone with the resources that I had at that time. What I learned was a "one day at a time" strategy, that I was able to build upon. That strategy, along with many other useful strategies, was the power I need to detoxify and move forward without a substance. Some of those strategies included honesty, willingness to show up, an open mind and group support.

    "Just Do It" may work well when a person is dealing with the mental gymnastics regarding a bad habit is, when it comes to a powerful physical addiction the phrase is useless. If you are addicted to a substance such as alcohol, cocaine, or heroine, please seek professional help. Addiction is mentally, physically and emotionally powerful and requires more than "just do it" nonsense.

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