Nancy Reagan passed away recently after a 94 year run. An actress in 11 feature films for MGM, Nancy married a fellow actor, then took on her most visible role as First Lady of the United States when that actor became president. All told, a long, successful life, and the 2nd longest lifespan of an American First Lady.
As most First Ladys do during their time in the White House, Nancy chose a cause to promote. While Michelle Obama’s cause was Childhood Obesity and Laura Bush’s was Child Literacy, Nancy chose to address teenage drug abuse with a campaign she called, “Just Say No.”
Nancy Reagan became synonymous with “Just Say No”, and her efforts led to a nationwide campaign of anti-drug use training for school kids. Backed by two billion dollars of government spending (that’s billion) and her husband’s minimum drug sentencing legislation, “Just Say No” became one of the largest initiatives of its kind anywhere.
But critics argued that it was an overly simplistic, expensive and ineffective approach to a complex problem. Abbie Hoffman, noted 70’s radical activist, declared that it was akin to “telling a manic-depressive to just cheer up” (that’s manic-depressive, BTW not Manic Impressive).
Their concerns were bolstered by two studies in 1988 that showed no lasting positive effect of the effort. Just the opposite, in fact, as rates of marijuana, cocaine, and L.S.D. use among 8th graders actually increased after they had been in decline for many years.
But as I found out for myself the other day, just saying ‘No’ can work for other, simpler things. The issue at play here is Willpower. Though a great force in helping us initiate good behavior, as a long-term strategy, Willpower is a recipe for failure. Just ask anyone who’s used it to quit eating donuts or smoking cigarettes. Willpower alone will not cure addiction.
But in the very short-term, Willpower can keep the demon urges at bay. Here’s how it happened for me. I was struggling with the urge to commit vice. Nothing illegal, but something that I was committed to not doing, at least for another two days until my weekend cheat day. The urge, in its simplest form, was just an idea. A synapse firing in my brain, calling for a familiar response. To disrupt it, I needed another overriding idea. To fire a different synapse.
In my case, I just said no. But not once, and not quietly. A whole string of no’s, very loudly, in my head. I was walking, and with each step I said NO. It came out as, “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!” Until the other voice, the quiet persistent one urging the bad behavior cried ‘Uncle’. It actually said. “okay, okay, I’ll shut up. And it did. For about an hour.
Then it came back.
But when it did, I said “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!” And it worked. The demon urge cried ‘Uncle’ again and went silent. Victory for me. Yay!
Again, this is a great short-term strategy only. Long-term you need a lot more help. What we’ve learned from the 12 Step movement is that we need the support of others and the help of a “Higher Power”. Willpower is good to get an addict to a meeting or to call a sponsor for support. But Willpower alone leads to relapse and soul-crushing failure in the face of the pernicious, persistent presence that is addiction.
So the next time an urge knocks on your door, remember, it’s just an idea. An impulse. An electrical surge within a synapse in your brain. Chase it away with a string of loud No’s. Couple that with something physical like walking or tapping or other bi-lateral movement (as the Behavioral Scientists suggest), and you stand a good chance of defeating your demons with Willpower, at least for now.
And if you do that, Nancy Reagan will be very proud of you…