Is There Hope of Preventing or Curing Addiction?

Part 1 – A new beginning – from Ritual to Addiction

One of my graduate students says, “Please don’t ever set that assignment again.” I am surprised at the anger that my assignment has roused. The course was ‘Stress Management’ – aiming to give self-analysis, coping skills and particularly to acquaint and align students with stress models and encourage them to construct new stress models.

So, what had I done wrong? Set too long an essay? Not given them enough time to do it? But no, it was none of these. The assignment was ‘merely’ to ‘break a ritual’! Not a big ritual, just a tiny one, like not putting the top back on the toothpaste tube, or not brushing their hair for a half-day. I wasn’t asking them to give up eating, was I?

The second part of the assignment asked the students to come to the next lesson prepared to describe their experience with breaking a ritual. This produced a wide reaction, ranging from ‘no success’ to ‘trivial assignment’. I wondered whether this revealed wide variation of acceptance or assistance to ritualization and in extreme cases to resistance to addiction. In a research setting, I would have started to ask questions like ‘If a person finds difficulty in breaking a ritual, will that person find difficulty breaking an Addiction?’ Or, ‘Can addictivity in adulthood be forecast in childhood?’ Or better still, ‘Can we educate and protect children against Addictivity?’ Better to give a bit of mind-control now to avoid the mind being destroyed later?

Addiction to drugs is often treated in a box of its own, and the success rates are disappointing, both in curing addiction and resistance to its recidivism. But had you thought that Addiction may be a notorious highlight included in a bunch of rituals, habits and indeed OCD? That is not to say that all rituals and habits are bad – indeed many are part of early education, training such benefits as cleanliness or work-ethic. This connection between Addiction and ‘rituals’ could be a pathway to a cure for any of them. As with any cure, it could be lengthy or short, complex or simple, painful or pleasant. We’ve come to believe that severe ailments need severe treatments, but there have been miracle cures, claimed by miracle workers, which are sometimes kept quiet because they cannot be explained by logic without embarrassment.

Part 2 – ‘Friends’ and ‘Enemies’ of Addiction

In wanting to break the bad rituals of addiction, we have a ‘friend’ and an ‘enemy’. Our enemy is paradoxically the need to train good habits in childhood to embed positive habits – of cleanliness, punctuality, and learning. These ‘positive’ rituals are set so hard by rote learning that they perversely make addiction difficult to break. Of course, habits are not set in tablets of stone – they may grow or wane. They may change into OCD, or worse.

Holmes and Rahe (1967) produced a scale of stress, rating a long line of typical life changes which contributed to illness. Where do you think that ‘Christmas’ appeared on the list? Well, it appeared rather high. As people grow older, the joys of Christmas are offset by the stress to provide better and better presents to give to friends and relatives. Additionally, people whose lives are normally stressful, due for example to caregiver or workload, only see salvation in looking forward to festivals and so they increase their input to those festivals. This is surely a key example of a good ritual turning into a bad one.

Their techniques are useful to give us efficiency in adulthood – to save time by handing over sequences of tasks to our autonomic system, so we can for example concentrate on planning our workday at the same time as automatically brushing our teeth. Unfortunately the ‘enemy’ is that our skills in ritualization can also help us to maintain destructive addictions.

Part 3 – Reconciling friends and enemies of ritualization

Dare I say it then – ‘Could we educate our children and adults not only to strengthen rituals but when and how to resist and break them? Wouldn’t this need an overhaul of our educational psychology and teacher training?

To do this I think we should look at how the mind might work in making and breaking rituals. We wrote a book called Controlling the Levees of Your Mind, in which I proposed a model of the mind in which the third layer between conscious and subconscious was analogous to the levees which control the flow, flooding, and blockage of water. This model evolved from my request to look at some of Freud’s original papers, which were shown to me at my local Karpeles Manuscript Library. Freud’s original model showed only two layers – the conscious and the subconscious, like this –

Freudian Two-layer Mind

It is an early model suggested by Freud. There is a thin surface layer called the conscious mind resting on a more substantial and powerful layer called the subconscious mind. Freud’s simple division of mind gives us a starting point. The subconscious mind is a promising powerhouse, because, without our intervention, it governs our autonomic system – our breathing, heart-beat, and blood pressure. Not that this is always a good thing. With experience, you begin to drive your car automatically, but maybe then too-automatically, and you have to pull your driving back into consciousness. The subconscious mind can be hurt and react to that hurt but that is something that can be healed. The subconscious mind was born perfect and it can return to the perfect state. We can give it suggestions that it will select for us the food which makes us healthy. On the other hand, a friend of mine had a subconscious mind disconnected from his conscious, so he vacillated between logic and intuition.

As a starting point, we can support this early Freudian mind model as a thin conscious blanket lying on a deep subconscious bed.

Part 4 – Defects of the two-layer model

Unfortunately, if we accept this simple model we would expect people to swing violently between using conscious and subconscious minds. The conscious mind is the storehouse of logic, while the subconscious is the storehouse of memories and emotions. We do all know people who use the model – people who inappropriately use logic instead of emotion and vice versa, maybe choosing Mr. Wrong instead of Mr, Right.

Freud recognized the deficiency of the model and proposed a third layer between conscious and subconscious –When I read Freud’s original papers I noticed that he proposed some properties that the third layer would possess. In all of his papers, I couldn’t find any development of fine structure of the third layer model, other than his saying that principally it should exercise guardianship against premature shifts between conscious and subconscious. In our book ‘Controlling the Levees of the Mind’, we tried to explore more of the necessary properties of the third layer and I discovered an analogy between its guardianship role and that of levees which control or release water in flood plains. To emphasize that connection I have labeled the third layer as a ‘Levee’ in my diagram above.

An addict suffers from weakness in the third layer. Its guardianship is weakened and its ‘levee’ allows thoughts to pass too freely from subconscious to conscious and trigger damaging actions from there. Such a mind-levee is particularly porous to rituals.

In my previous book, I discovered that such weaknesses are better-explained if we view the levee model from the side, like this –

Side view of 3-Layer mind model, showing porous levee

We often talk about people being strong-minded or weak-minded. Presumably, a strong-minded person will be able to resist addiction. Perhaps such a person’s model will have a ‘strong’, tall levee and a weak-minded person will have a levee which is porous, or has a hole in it, or is not tall enough to block thought-passage?

Or perhaps a healthy levee is more sophisticated? For example, could it have gates which the operator can open and close?

Part 5 – The ‘ideal’ mind levee

Before we look at ‘addictive gates’, I think we should imagine what the ideal mind levee might look like. What will the ‘ideal’ mind levee look like in a ‘strong-minded’ person – a person who paradoxically selects from an extraordinary range of seemingly-contradictory qualities? A strong-minded person may be praised for being appropriately but alternately firm or flexible, decisive or sensible, cautious or spontaneous! How can we compile a list of the properties of an ideal mind levee which will encompass this vast change of personalities?

My observations and counseling of people led me to suggest the following desirable properties for a ‘strong-minded’ levee –

  • It will be cautionary, to resist wind-milling between conscious and subconscious
  • It will be porous on demand to allow passage of thoughts, information, and decisions either way
  • It will allow passage of information from conscious to subconscious minds
  • It will allow passage of information from subconscious mind to conscious mind, to draw on the enormous power of the subconscious mind
  • It will be gated at entrance and exit to permit or prevent information flow
  • Both entry and exit gates can be simultaneously closed to allow the levee to be used as a holding area for reflective decision-making
  • The response times of the gates can be long, or infinitesimally short

These considerations led me to propose the following model of an ‘ideal’ levee, to be further tested against case studies –

‘Ideal’ Levee with Gates


Part 6 – Good and Bad rituals

The techniques for establishing good rituals are well established in the educational system. They are rote learning, repetition, and correction. If you watch a teacher in action, much of the time is spent telling the children what is good, embedding it by repetition, and correcting mistakes in responses. If you are lucky, you will see reinforcement of a good response by giving praise, but it is easy to criticize and difficult to remember to praise. As concepts become more difficult to establish, rote learning becomes more prolific, particularly when developing and extending vocabulary. When a child matures and enters the academic world of college, the temptation is to impress people by replacing sensible vocabulary with jargon.

Habits and ritualization become so strong that they can turn into and reinforce addiction. Yet the sufferer doesn’t stand a chance if the ritual is not broken, and is left floundering by the very techniques which have been used to establish good habits and rituals.

The need now becomes not to establish a ritual but to break a ritual! This is not easy, because the sufferer has to correct a mistake first time before the ritual takes command. Current rehabilitation techniques, while praiseworthy in their efforts, however, have a lamentably low success rate. Even if they are successful they have very high recidivism. For example, see Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS).

Nothing is more difficult than un-learning. It is responsible for cases of damaging preservation of the status quo, or the repetition of mistakes, leading to major disasters like aircraft crashes. As a teacher, I occasionally made a mistake and found it really difficult to correct it when faced with a bunch of ritualized children. Put a spelling mistake on the whiteboard and the children will laugh at you and make correction of the mistake unpleasant. So the prospect of curing addiction looks bleak and needs much research, starting from first principles.

Part 7 – The need for limited controlled de-ritualization

You will be shocked when I say I think what we need to do is find a harmless way to teach children to test whether they can temporarily to break a good habit! This is going to be really difficult, may generate extreme opposition from children and parents and need a lot of teacher-training. We can imagine repeated reaction scenarios like the one which started this article where I set the assignment to break a ritual. In fact, this would be a good place to start but I advise you, teachers, to get the cooperation of the parents first! Because they will be hammering at ritualization to give themselves easy lives in bringing up their children, while you will be sending them home asking them to test-break a ‘good’ habit!

In fact, deciding to break the good habit will be easier than the next essential stage, which is choosing the habit to break. But the dividends may be enormous when the children are tempted into addiction of undesirable non-prescription drugs.

I can hear you saying, “Well OK, if we accept this idea, how do we do it?” So I have the responsibility to give you at least a starter lesson-plan and I will try to do it. Bear with me in this difficult task for the sake of addicts.

Part 8 – Plan for limited de-ritualization – a specimen lesson plan

  • Give examples of habits and rituals
  • Give a list of habits and rituals and ask the children to classify them as either good or bad
  • Ask the children to talk about one selected ritual
  • Ask them to choose just one good ritual that is used in their home
  • Give them a printed sheet to take home asking their parents’ permission to break the ritual just one time.
  • Give the reasons for doing it, namely that you are (but in simple language) training them to reinforce good habits and extinguish bad habits.
  • Ask the children to bring the permission sheets to the next lesson and talk about their experience with the task.
  • Discuss bad habits and lead to a discussion of addiction and how to break its ritual.

Part 9 – Hopeful benefits of this suggested plan

How does this approach link to our mind models? Well, it is a subtle way of modifying and building the quality of the third layer mind-levee. In this process, it adds to our former book ‘Controlling the Levees of your Mind’, in which we tried to explain and modify the levees of people with, for example, Intellectual Disability, Bi-polar, Asperger, Alzheimer, ADHD.

We would like to add Addiction to the list.

Part 10 – Break a ‘good’ ritual to control a ‘bad’ ritual

A good ritual could be one which trains a child to obey orders, to cultivate cleanliness, to ensure safety, to present a good appearance, to promote health. A bad ritual could be Addiction. What we’re striving for is the ability to resist and control Addiction. The increase in addiction to non-prescription drugs and the death rate from those drugs suggests this will be difficult. It is enhanced by the increase in doctors’ prescriptions of opioids. We want to be able to control the levee of the mind by strengthening it like current therapy does, but we want to be more sophisticated in opening or closing gates in the levee. Putting it bluntly, we want to oil the hinges on those gates. Then we could accept and foster a good ritual, but crush temptation to a bad ritual.

Part 11– A simple example of the suggested process

My family is suggesting that I am becoming addicted to increasing the amount of honey I put in my tea. Are they joking about it or is there some truth in it? Are they using this accusation as a test of my suggestions in this article? My conscience is mildly stirred.

If I have a weak levee, either in its height (strength) or weakness to control its gates, what do I do? Well, it depends on my training to be able to recognize, strengthen, or weaken my Levee, or lubricate the hinges on its gates, or check the sealing of the closed gates.

If I can’t optimize the strength and control of my levee, I will not be able to break the addiction, so I will need more training and as an adult, I will probably have to train myself. So I will need to humble myself by going back to childhood and doing a few more exercises, establishing and breaking a trivial ritual at first, then progressively harder ones. In my mind, I think I can do it because I remember some of my de-ritualizations. On the way to this process, I will be honing my technique and hopefully will be proud of small achievements.

If I have some setbacks in reducing my honey-input, I must not fall into the trap of perfection. Perfection was another source of an exercise in my stress management course. In a bad case, perfection can be a killer and I mean kill, because it is an addiction. It can negate progress or success in an enterprise or a problem which, for its solution, only needs a ‘good average job’. Therefore I will encourage a ritual of not getting upset if occasionally I put in a bit of extra honey!

© 2020 Adaptability. Dr. Gilbert Cleeton and Dr. Lorraine Cleeton.

About the Authors

Gil Cleeton Ph.D. 

Gil was born in England near Shakespeare’s birthplace. He was a Physics Teacher, Neuroscientist, and Teacher of Research Methods. He helped deaf people to hear again by designing cochlear implants in England and America, and he has joint-authored ‘Controlling the Levees of the Mind’, and “A Pocket Guide for Student Teachers”.


Lorraine Cleeton, Ph.D.

Lorraine was born in Brooklyn, NY. Her background is in Special Education, in the capacity of teaching and training pre-service teachers, and acting as Disability Advocate and Guardian ad Litem in the UK and US. She has authored several articles on “Language Learning Strategies and Dyslexia”, and her current research interests are in “Mind Models of Disability and Addictions”.