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Addiction Is a Disease


You may think: I drink alcohol and I know my limits.  Alcoholics just don’t know how to control themselves.  It’s their choice that they don’t want to stop drinking.  Just as easily, you probably infer the same thought process for other drugs out there… heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc. Drug use is a choice.

Yes, drug use is a choice.  It’s free-will to pick up that joint, light it and smoke it.  But what’s going on behind the scenes (i.e. in your brain) isn’t a choice.  Unless you can control your brain structure. In that case, who are you and where are you from?

Since I began working at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, I’ve often asked myself: Why is there such resistance to acknowledge addiction as a disease. The media is so quick to call the person with an addiction irresponsible, reckless, selfish and troubled.  And the majority of online commenters fuel the fire by honing in on the behaviors of the disease, rather than acknowledging the disease itself. It makes me wonder two things: Are people really that cruel? Do people understand what addiction really is?

Maybe, maybe not.   My inclination is sensationalized news sells more magazines and drives traffic.  That’s why news sources play up what’s going on with the Charlie Sheen’s and Lindsay Lohan’s of the world, but why do so many of you?  It’s easy to blame someone for the choices they make in life, but when it comes to drug addiction, there is little choice involved.  Although everyone has the potential for addiction, some people are more predisposed to addiction than others.

When a person is addicted they’re suffering continuously; their brain chemistry changes causing distortions of cognitive and emotional functioning; and, even in the face of death, they continue to harm themselves. Family and friends of addicts claim erratic changes in mood, behavior and perception.  Many say their addicted loved one becomes an entirely different person.

Just like schizophrenics can’t control their hallucinations… Parkinson’s patients can’t control their trembling… clinically depressed patients can’t control their moods… once a person is addicted to drugs it’s not that different than other brain diseases.  No matter how someone has developed an illness, once the person has it, they’re in a diseased state and need treatment. 

Moreover, like any other illness, it affects family and friends, too.  There are moms who stay up all night waiting for their child to come home.  There are dads who fear that dreaded phone call telling them that their child has overdosed.  There are siblings who try to remain strong as their family is slowly falling apart. There are friends who feel like their hands are tied, but are clinging to that small ounce of hope that the friend they once knew will accept help. 

Ask the parents, family and friends of the addict if drug addiction is a choice.  Go ahead and ask the addict himself as well.  They will tell you from their experiences that addiction is not a choice.

Knowledge is power. (Sorry for the cliché).  When we bash something that we don’t really understand, and we do it in the numbers, it sways public opinion – intended or not.  With this mindset, the stigma that is attached with the disease of addiction will never go away unless we all change how we view it.

18 Responses to this article

  1. Avatar of Jarell
    Jarell / March 15, 2012 at 4:29 am

    I used alcohol and several types of drugs for over 28 years. I was addicted to these substances. Now, that being said, I do remember the first time I smoked a cigarette a joint, hash, shot up and so on. I made a choice to do these things, I remember deciding that I wanted to do this. Now after I had lived doing these things for a number of years it became something I could not quit doing and to be honest I did not want to quit. There were several times through the years that someone would talk me into quiting, even though I realy did’nt want to. I remember the minute this person was no longer around to baby set me, I would go right back to the substances. It was’nt till I wanted to quit that I did. It was never a disease to me, it was a choice.

  2. danielvitory / August 26, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I have felt shame about having a child who is an addict. It’s one of the toughest emotions I’ve had to deal with. The ignorance of others; neighbors, friends, family, etc., is frustrating and can make you feel bad about yourself. I’ve found that reading this blog and going to Alanon meetings has been a big helpHelp For Troubled Teens
    Troubled Teen Help
    Troubled Teens

  3. Avatar of danielvitory
    danielvitory / August 26, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    I have felt shame about having a child who is an addict. It’s one of the toughest emotions I’ve had to deal with. The ignorance of others; neighbors, friends, family, etc., is frustrating and can make you feel bad about yourself. I’ve found that reading this blog and going to Alanon meetings has been a big help

  4. Patti Herndon / April 21, 2011 at 3:28 am

    “Our children are not failed attempts at being us”…

    Having a son or daughter with an addiction is certainly a challenge. But it’s not a shameful one.

    The thing about “shame”? See…That’s about “us”, the self. Our shame has nothing to do with our addicted son or daughter. When we resolve that within ourselves, (and no doubt it can be a real struggle), then, we find there is a lot less fear and anxiety and stress -A lot less focusing on and worrying about what cousin Mary or Grandpa Jack or our mother or our co-worker or “friends” etc., “think”. If we find ourselves focusing on shame…That means we have more work to do.

    Others are not living our lives. They are not the parents of our sons and daughters. Besides, we can’t control what anybody else thinks, anyway…But, then, why should we want to? We get that planted?… then we find more energy, that we didn’t know we had before, freed up. That energy once turned inward and inefficient goes outward toward more productive, recovery-purposed strategies and more peaceful moments…And God knows we need to recognize all potential moments for peace, hope-giving, and problem solving in this challenge. Can’t be aware if were stuck in feeling shame about our sons and daughters addiction challenge. Increased energy and peaceful moments, despite the challenges, despite the unpredictability that comes with addiction, can happen – And that helps us as parents, and helps our sons and daughters, and the people around us.

    Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

  5. Patti Herndon / April 21, 2011 at 2:58 am

    DD…Thanks for stopping in. Though, I’m figurin’ nothing shared here has much chance of resulting in your developing a more open perspective. Oh…but wait. My bad. You didnt stop by to “share” and learn, now did ya? Yours was more the drive through and then the dump…emphasis on the latter ;0)

    But, even so, there is always hope. Wishes of enlightenment and a growing perspective are sent your direction. Clearly, something has compelled your closed mindedness. Gotta’ crack a window or door, Boots,…allow some light in. Read some current “stuff” about addiction. It’ll do ya good…and the rest of us, too ;0)”

    Peace to you…

  6. DD BOOTS / March 31, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Drugs and alcohol are are learned lifestyle or for social acceptance and in many can become addicted and is not a disease!

  7. Avatar of is my teen using drugs
    is my teen using drugs / March 24, 2011 at 1:54 am

    Nice post! it helps parents worrying from their children.Having a son/daughter who’s an addict is a shame but parents must consider it as a challenge.

  8. Susan Lea / March 20, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    To Colleen – There was a recent post on this blog called “The Scarlett Letter” that affected me deeply. In her comments, a mother talked about the treatment she received from a neighbor about her son that made her feel like she was wearing a “scarlett letter.” (I wish i could find this particular article but didn’t have any luck)

    I have felt shame about having a child who is an addict. It’s one of the toughest emotions I’ve had to deal with. The ignorance of others; neighbors, friends, family, etc., is frustrating and can make you feel bad about yourself. I’ve found that reading this blog and going to Alanon meetings has been a big help.

    Our children are amazing people; full of wonderful qualities that we want everyone to see. As long as society sees addiction as a choice rather than a disease, some people will never see our children’s amazing qualities, they will just see the trouble they’re causing everyone.

  9. colleen / March 18, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    My son, 19 years old, is in jail right now for a probation violation. He has been denied bail at this time, Thank God, because I don’t have to live with not bailing him out. Because this time I wasn’t going to. His drug of choice has become heroin, and it’s led to the loss of his job, which of course then led to stealing. I have spent the last six months running around the house, hiding keys and sleeping with my purse under my pillow and dreading each time the phone rang late at night. I refused to put him out – I actually was relieved he was only stealing from me. Talk about joining him in his sickness. He has lows so bad that he talks about just ending it all, his pain, our pain. My heart has been broken into a million pieces and I never thought I could be so scared or powerless. This column and the comments help greatly. Family members and friends do not understand. They try, but society and media have them convinced that there is something amoral or weak about addicts. I get asked,”Why would he do this to you?” “Why do you allow him to live this way?” I am perceived as a bad parent by many, and I have been completely torn apart by some neighbors on a very public social network. My son is considered by many to just be a problem that society doesn’t need. I tell my friends and family, “It was his choice to try heroin the first time. That was his very bad choice. After that, he had no choice.” No one would choose death or jail if it wasn’t a disease. Anyone who can’t see that, well, they are the problem. My son is a smart, funny, kind soul and has always worn his heart on his sleeve. I now know this can happen to anyone and this is most definitely a disease. But, how could I have known this before? How can people’s perpesctives change unless they are involoved in an addicts life, whether by family, friend or treatment provider? And how can I help? I wish my son was in a long term residentail treatment for drug dependence. I wish it more than anything I have ever wished for. But, he is in jail and I can only pray that he is there long enough to be sober, in body and mind, to seek help. One of these articles said “Where there is life, there is hope” At least we still have that.

  10. Deb C / March 17, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    I love this post. It seems that the medical community/rehab facilities/medical insurance personnel need to realize that addiction is a disease that can not be cured in X number of days in rehab. Insurance is quick to stop paying for rehab treatment because the condition is deemed “not medically necessary”. Shame on them. My daughter has been in & out of 5 rehabs in the past 2 years. She relapses each time. Why don’t they get it & help her. She has a disease!! Sorry, but I’m a bit angry at this moment.

  11. Tom at Recovery Helpdesk / March 5, 2011 at 2:48 am

    Patti, this quote from your comment is golden:

    “supplying a menu of current, evidence-based, compassion-driven options -Those options whereby the person with the challenge is encouraged toward THEIR OWN self-discovery and healthy,creative problem solving.”

    This is what is ethical, moral, compassionate AND effective!

  12. Susan Lea / March 4, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Once in a while I read something that makes me think, “This is exactly what I wish people would understand.” And reading the comments from Marco were really enlightening.

    To quote: “I know from my own personal experience, that for the vast majority of my addiction, I wasn’t suffering. I loved the feeling that drugs (specifically heroin) gave me. There was nothing that could compare.” and “Our brains are wired to forget bad experiences. We forget the pain and remember the good times.”

    The addicts I have watched over the years seem pretty happy most of the time. It’s when they’re out of money or in trouble with the law or watching relationships falling apart that reality finally hits.

    My ex-husband stated to our daughter that “using heroin was the best feeling I ever experienced in my life.” He was trying to be helpful to our daughter since she was recovering from heroin addiction. But the look on her face was shock. She was offended that he placed heroin above becoming a father.

    But at the same time she understood what he was saying. She has to constantly remind herself that using drugs isn’t worth the pain of stopping. And at some point the party ends and the addict has to stop or face death.

  13. Patti Herndon / March 4, 2011 at 1:11 am

    Wow… COOL! It’s refreshing to see this post, and the comments in response to it. Olivia…Thank you for being the catalyst in this much needed conversation-one we need to keep having…and often.

    The societal scale can use help balancing back a bit away from the side of “lets be hall monitor, police and judge on behalf of the physical and mental health of those who engage in drug use and live their lives in ways we don’t approve of. (Right…this is on “their healths’” behalf *smirk*) So many hats to wear…so little time. Busy, busy we are;0)

    For the record: The above is not an inference that society should just scrap laws and other regulatory safe guards associated with mood altering substances. I’m just suggesting that it’s seems too often the case that we receive some kind of “self”-satisfying amp-age from attempts at “correcting” those “alcoholics and drug addicts and badly behaved people” that “won’t do what we tell them to do”. -Just sayin’:0)

    There is better ground to be gained in inspiring our fellow man challenged by a substance use disorder or other neurobiological-related condition to discover and choose their own healthier coping alternatives, if that is truly the collective goal -as opposed to the goal of “controlling” others choices and behavior…”this instant… this way”. And…yes. Of course we know that there will be those circumstances when “controlling” another’s actions and behaviors is, under the circumstances, the only choice we have. But, that should be less and less necessary as we journey, due to reliable, evidence-based research and discoveries providing options that encourage healthy coping and decision making in those struggling with addiction or other mental health-related challenge. We just seem to have trouble with being patient enough in allowing the individual to discover “their” best practices toward sustainable change. “Patience as a virtue” is never so true as when applied to the process of recovery, especially on the part of the non-addicted. We could use a little more empathy in our approach is all…

    By applying an increasingly collaborative, societal focus…one that values supplying a menu of current, evidence-based, compassion-driven options -Those options whereby the person with the challenge is encouraged toward THEIR OWN self-discovery and healthy,creative problem solving – the better for all of us. Noting that drug using adolescents are in a complex psychological process of individuation and neurological maturation during the teen and early adulthood years. We want to encourage them to problem solve and balance, too; but with the help of age-appropriate boundaries and healthy support/guidance supplied, and led by, engaged parents. An interactive dynamic and treatment approach tailored for their stage of emotional growth and neurological development can serve to help them in avoiding worsening, more serious addiction challenges as they get older.

    Humans and that pesky “control thing”. That’s where a great deal of the insensitivity/cruelty that Olivia brings up for conversation comes from. People, absolutely, target, (for their own self-serving motives, whether done consciously or not,in any number of ineffective and insensitive ways), those who exhibit/struggle with symptoms of addiction, behavioral issues and conduct disorders. It’s as though we just can’t control our own agendas to control. :0)

    “Cruel”…As in that something extreme and outside of general behavioral norm that we say or do to attempt to gain what we regard as favorable psychological/physical positioning at the expense of, and to the detriment of another’s psychological and/or physical well being? (Ambivalence could be considered cruel, too, when you think about it). Well, anyway… It does happen. We see it every day…or, try not to, dependin’.

    Human beings are capable of cruelty. But we are even more capable of learning how not to interact with an agenda of domination when we come to the realization that it is of far more value to us as individuals, and as a collective, to inspire, encourage and support one another toward healthy change… as often as we can possibly stand it ;0). Doesn’t mean we will always agree on all things -just means we “authentically” respect ourselves. And, because of that we can’t help but increasingly show respect for others. Win/Win…

    The more we invest in understanding “self” toward being/living as “self-respecting”,(I mean, hey…We’ve all got our baggage-turned- hoarded- emotional garbage to sort through and discard, after all), and, then, taking the next steps to increasingly act and react in the light of that truth of understanding; we are better able to discern what it is we truly value…and why. As we practice that, we are better equipped to come together collaboratively to define the kinds of family, community and societal values that will best support individual health and peace in the face of addiction…and any other human malady.

    It reasonable theorizing that most people who are or who have been chronically addicted/dependent on mood altering substances are so due to a convergence of biological, psychological and sociological factors -The brain and behavioral “stuff” gets pretty deep. The suffering mentioned in Olivia’s post is happening within the psyche of the addicted person. But often their is a lack of emotional maturity in allowing for the acknowledgement of that suffering. It can take years and years of non drug abuse before that kind of acknowledgement becomes psychologically comfortable. It means admitting vulnerability. And, this is not always easy for us to do. This is especially true for the drug abuser that began using regularly in adolescence in order to cope with physchological stressors. And that’s often the scenario. Lots of coping mechanism is developed during those years. It doesnt tend to happen in the presence of numbing/self medicating oneself in the avoidance of emotional stress and confusion. And, it usually takes a lot of time and work to gain what was under-developed. But people make those steps turned giant leaps in emotional maturation all the time. And they inspire others toward the same while they’re doing it. Thank goodness for these warriors!

    Biomedical models of explanation…psychosocial conditioning…and on and on. We are fortunate to live in a time were there exists the benefit of a lot of research through the years -Learning that supports insights into the causal aspects regarding addiction and behavioral health challenges, and advances in treatment for these challenges.

    But, we are not as far along as we should be… I think we can do much better by people with addiction and other behavioral health issues…and we have the individual and collective responsibility to do it.

    I have a lot of hope that we can continue to learn how to support one another in better and better healthier ways, turning the tide of addictions’ far reaching consequences until it, just, predominantly, slows and dries up. I can’t help but think that if we didn’t care about one another, we would probably not have been so inclined toward the research and study of those things that impede our personal growth and health. But, no doubt, there is room for loads of improvement where understanding and “good will toward men” meets.

    Especially where addiction and mental health issues are concerned, there are still stragglers. These folks contribute as stigma perpetuators, unfortunately. Those who seem to get something out of opinion-ating themselves into a lather by demanding that “addiction is a choice and by-cracky, we just need to bend those do-badders to our will and/or otherwise kick ‘em to the curb. Cut to the prison and homeless populous -An example of the lessons we still need to learn regarding our penchant to control rather than to inspire healthy behavioral change, and effectively treat. I mean…really… How do these commentary-from-the-dark ages, stigma people avoid the cascades of information that raining down around us at every corner on the subject of addition and mental health? What’s say we round them all up and “force” them into Addiction Class, followed by post-class snacks, nap time, and upon their waking…sincere (and repeated) bear hugs. That’s right! We’ll educate ‘em and nurture ‘em into better-reasoned, better health-improving perspectives, actions and interactions. Now, that’s the kind of control that would be worth its salt ;0)

    Keep on keepin’ on Ms. Olivia!

    Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

  14. Avatar of pressingtheissue
    pressingtheissue / March 2, 2011 at 7:01 am

    I totally agree with tom. The jails and prisons are filled with drug offenders that were most likely illegally searched and seized in the first place. It would make a lot more sense all around to get these people help and free up some bunks for the real criminals.

  15. Tom at Recovery Helpdesk / March 2, 2011 at 3:12 am

    Great post Olivia, and good for you for being brave enough to speak out so clearly on this issue.

    I think stigma around drug use is a big part of the reason that it’s so hard for so many people to accept on a deep level that an addicted person’s ability to fully exercise free will is compromised.

    It’s hard for most people to make a distinction between the behavior and the person –to recognize that many drug users are great people.

    And if we accept that free will is compromised, how do we justify our punitive approach to drug use? A lot of people aren’t ready to “go there.”

    I’m lucky because I know hundreds of people who are opiate dependent through my work, and I like almost every one of them. This gives me a different perspective than most people who can only go by stereotypes.

    When you like people (and respect them and see the dignity and courage), you are less quick to want to condemn them or control them. You more just want to offer your help.

    Beth, I liked your “I don’t gets.” Here’s one of mine:

    I don’t get why the same people who constantly talk about “holding addicts accountable” don’t hold themselves accountable.

    We need to hold ourselves accountable as a society for our part in perpetuating the problem. Unless we as a society make a commitment to making effective treatment available on demand, then I don’t think we have a right to blame people for not getting better.

    We’ll spend $50,000/year to incarcerate a person with addiction rather than spend $2,000 giving them treatment.

    That’s a choice…a BAD choice!

  16. Avatar of Marco
    Marco / March 2, 2011 at 2:32 am

    Hi- I’ve got a couple of comments, both for Olivia and Beth. First of all, great article Olivia! But I don’t believe people are cruel, I believe they just don’t understand. And that’s why the Partnership and other organizations that try to educate people about addiction are so important.

    I would question, though, your statement that people who are addicted are “suffering continuously.” I know from my own personal experience, that for the vast majority of my addiction, I wasn’t suffering. I loved the feeling that drugs (specifically heroin) gave me. There was nothing that could compare. It was only when the consequences started building up that I realized I needed to change. And IMO that’s one reason it’s so hard for addicts to stay clean and sober. Our brains are wired to forget bad experiences. We forget the pain and remember the good times. How many addicts have gone back out to get that feeling “just one more time.” That was always my downfall. And that’s what I work with as a counselor, helping motivate clients to see that life without drugs is better than life with drugs- it’s often not so clear cut. I actually think treatment would be have much more successful outcomes if addicts simply suffered continuously. But the dirty little thing that no one likes to talk about is that addicts like their drugs and enjoy their drug use. Drugs make us feel good. I think picturing addicts as people suffering continuously isn’t totally accurate.

    And I think this actually demonstrates just how insidious this disease is. Because who, but someone who is very sick, can enjoy what they’re doing while their world is crumbling around them. The disease tells us we’re fine, we’re in control, we’re having fun, everyone else has the problem(s).

    I liked your comments too Beth. But I have trouble understanding when you write “so what if it’s a disease.” I think that’s the whole point. If we say “so what” it feeds into the thinking that it doesn’t matter if we consider it a disease.

    Last point is that I believe it should matter to non-addicts whether or not addiction is a disease and whether addicts should seek treatment. Because addiction doesn’t affect only individuals. It affects families and entire communities. Until more non-addicts start caring, nothing will change as far as making treatment more accessible. Education is so important. And that’s why the Partnership’s work is so important.


  17. Avatar of Debbie
    Debbie / March 2, 2011 at 1:02 am

    Addiction is the continued actions, activities, and behaviors…. DESPITE catastrophic consequences to a persons life…Period… People often want to stop doing the behaviors but changes occur in the brain. Stopping these behaviors is increasingly difficult. Willpower I believe is a word used by nonaddicts to demean people who are struggling with the DISEASE of addiction.

  18. Beth / March 1, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a more concise questioning of why people don’t–or won’t–accept addiction as a disease. You nailed it!

    I love this part: “Why is there such resistance to acknowledge addiction as a disease. The media is so quick to call the person with an addiction irresponsible, reckless, selfish and troubled. And the majority of online commenters fuel the fire by honing in on the behaviors of the disease, rather than acknowledging the disease itself. It makes me wonder two things: Are people really that cruel? Do people understand what addiction really is?”

    I believe that it is the lack of understanding that causes us to be insensitive, and yes, perhaps even cruel. We ridicule out of ignorance instead of admitting a lack of understanding. We fear what we don’t understand and as a result, an entire community of sufferers is labeled weak because they are “unable” to simply quit abusing drugs or alcohol.

    Here’s what I don’t get: So what if addiction is a disease? It doesn’t make cancer or diabetes or Parkinson’s any less of a one. There is no disease contest! Only sick people trying to get well through treatment of their respective disease.

    Why should it matter to non-addicts whether addicts seek treatment for their disease?

    Here’s something else I don’t get: Why are people so defensive about their own alcohol consumption when they are around a recovering alcoholic?

    Great post and I hope to see lots of discussion!

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