Part Two: Do You Believe Addiction is a Choice? (Read Part One here.)
When you are in the throes of dealing with the chaos an Addict creates, it is hard to see the disease clearly through a lens clouded by your completely justified anger and disappointment. Addiction is unlike any other disease. You would never consider being mad at a cancer patient for not responding well to chemotherapy. You would never 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.” Yet Addicts are kicked out of rehabilitation programs every day for succumbing to their disease by using. Tough love simply won’t help relapse any more than it will for cancer.
And 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.
Consider these quotes about whether addiction is a choice from David Sheff’s book Clean:
“The Pavlovian association between environmental and drug effect could by itself produce mental and physical symptoms in both abusers and addicts.”
“Illness is rooted in the very brain center that normally would tell them that they’re in trouble and need help.”
“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 friend 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.”
“Taking drugs isn’t actually a choice but a subliminal reaction that has become automatic. Numerous behavioral therapies teach and train addicts to make conscious what had been unconscious and to interrupt automatic behaviors that lead them to use.”
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.