addiction: brain Disease or a moral failing
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been touched by addiction and pondered whether it’s a disease or not. Some believe it is. Others think it’s a matter of self-discipline. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s abrupt death rocked the foundation of the addiction community when he overdosed. His death by addiction underscored that relapse can happen to the brightest of us, and at any point of recovery. The fact PSH had every reason not to use drugs reinforces my belief that addiction is a brain disease, not a moral failing.
what’s your history with addiction?
Maybe you lived with an alcoholic parent growing up. Perhaps your brother is a wake-and-bake weed smoker. You recall your binge-drinking bunkmate having black-outs which you all shrugged off as another crazy night in college. There’s a friend of yours who always seems to get a little too drunk a little too frequently. The co-worker who is constantly chiding the crew to go to happy hour that lasts all night.
i’ve studied addiction, and I’m still confused
I’ve lived with individuals addicted to alcohol for the majority of my life. I believe I’ve dealt with the chaos of addiction in as many ways possible over the years. I have ignored, obsessed about, and denied it. I’ve experimented getting really fucking mad, becoming resolute, and sympathizing with it. Over the years I’ve also hidden, empathized with, tried to help, and broadcast it. I went through phases of bargaining, acceptance, and repudiation. I’ve given ultimatums, cried amidst the disruption, and literally divorced myself from addiction.
I’ve devoted a lot of energy to studying the brain disease or a moral failing dilemma over the course of my life. One aspect I haven’t mastered is understanding it. Not fully, anyway. Despite first-hand observation, researching and reading about addiction for years, addiction still befuddles me. One nagging concept impeding that understanding may be shame. Of one thing I’m certain: shame sucks ass.
“Using drugs or not isn’t about willpower or character. Most problematic drug use is related to stress, trauma, genetic predisposition, mild or serious mental illness, use at an early age or some combination thereof.”-David Sheff, Author of clean
Quoting David Sheff: “Most drug use is about coping with life, not about the drugs.” Do you think at the end of a harrowing day at the office or wrangling children that you deserve a drink to relax? That’s about dealing with stress. It’s not about how much you love the taste of wine.
Being in the throes of dealing with the chaos an addict creates, it’s hard to see the disease clearly. Anger and disappointment may cloud your understandably warped lens. Addiction is unlike any other disease. You would never consider screaming at a cancer patient for not responding well to chemotherapy. Moreover, you wouldn’t think, “If they just stopped stressing about having cancer then it might stop growing inside. Just will your cells to respond and have a positive attitude!” Regardless, those with addictions are kicked out of rehabilitation programs every day for succumbing to their disease. Tough love doesn’t treat drug relapse any more than it’ll treat cancer.
please don’t misunderstand me
I’m not advocating that anyone stay with an Addict regardless. Thinking of addiction as a disease without choice is not mutually exclusive to living with an Addict no matter what because they are ill. What I am advocating is that we don’t associate addiction with weak moral character. It’s not shameful, or at least it shouldn’t be. Trying to shame addicts won’t help them stop using. Rather, it will give them another reason to use. Addiction is confusing and complex. An Addict can be a complete asshole and you would be justified to distance yourself from the asshole.
We still haven’t discovered a program that overwhelmingly helps Addicts. Relapse is rampant. With addiction, the questions are different than with other diseases: “Why can’t [the addict] see what they are doing to those around them?” “Why are they choosing vodka over me?” “How could they be so damn selfish?” It takes a lot to convince the loved-ones suffering along with the Addict that the Addict isn’t choosing drugs over them. A Father would never choose drugs over watching his children grow up. That’s absurd. Yet it happens every day when Addicts feed their addiction. They isolate so they can continue using.
“When an addict takes drugs, it appears to be a choice. One of the reasons people reject the idea that addiction is a disease is the mistaken belief that people don’t cause or contribute to ‘real’ disease. But they do. Eating fried chicken contributes to heart disease progression. Smoking leads to lung cancer. The stop system isn’t working in those who are addicted, which is why they don’t consider consequences while they are taking drugs.”-David Sheff, author of Clean
does it matter if addiction is a brain disease or moral failing?
I think it does. Addiction makes more sense to me when I liken it to obsessions with food. Laziness and/or poor character does not singularly explain obesity. The same holds true for anorexics and bulimics. Vanity doesn’t make them starve themselves. Mental illness does. All these people are dealing with life through indirect means. There is something about their heredity, environment and/or genetic make-up that pre-disposes these individuals to not be able to hit the “off” button in their consciousness. They have to be taught how to manage manually what those of us with different physiologies do inherently. To be rational and stop doing that which makes us sick.
Who is the addict in your life? What are you doing to cope with him or her?