Let's Face It

There is a lot of controversy both in and out of the field of addiction about whether or not it is a disease.  Never mind the fact that the American Medical Association has definitively classified it as such.  The nay-sayers are convinced that the classification was a conspiracy of sorts that the AMA conjured up to allow medical treatment for addiction to be paid by insurance companies, etc.  Neuroscientists have released various images of the addicted and non-addicted brain, but the viewers or “readers” of those images argue back and forth about exactly what they mean.  Each side is confident in its decision.  Whom are we to believe?

After years of reading, studying, and experiential learning from addicted loved ones, I believe the answer is quite obvious.  If you put a mind-altering, addictive chemical substance into your body for a significant period of time, your brain is bound to become diseased along with the other organs that may be affected (liver, kidneys, etc.).  For some people, this may happen sooner rather than later.  Each person is going to respond differently, and each situation is unique:  age, height, weight, family history/genetics, substance(s) used, duration of use, amount used, life dynamics, etc.  In my mind it is ludicrous to think that the brain will not become diseased, and it seems presumptuous to determine how slowly or quickly the brain should recover in any given individual.

Let’s take my friends for example. My friend “Sheila” has eaten everything and anything she ever wanted her entire life.  She is overweight, and she has never exercised.  My friend “Tony,” on the other hand, has always watched his diet, is underweight, and he has always been active and exercised at least to some degree.  Tony has high cholesterol and heart disease, but Sheila has neither.   Tony put much less into his body throughout the years that might have caused high cholesterol and heart disease, yet he is the one who got the disease.  Sheila technically should have clogged arteries, but she does not.  Why is that?  Genetics — and we have no problem accepting that.  Still I feel fairly certain that if Sheila were to ingest a pound of butter everyday, in time she too would develop high cholesterol and heart disease . 

Now let’s switch the “thing” that is being ingested to a alcohol or drugs.  There are people who can abuse substances for years and never become addicted (like Sheila in the example above).  They can stop at any time, so they don’t understand or “buy into” the whole disease concept.  Then there are those who are careful and drink or use less often, yet they become addicted / diseased (like Tony above).  These people obviously have a genetic predisposition or have otherwise acquired an affliction that they simply have no control over.  Tony stoppedeating trans fats years ago, but his disease still progresses.  The substance abuser with the disease of addiction can stop using, but his disease will continue to plague him.  And similar to Sheila hypothetically eating a pound of butter a day, if someone used or drank enough over a long period of time, they too would likely develop the disease., although some people can eat and drink as much as they want and never have problems.

As a society we don’t like any of this because unlike heart disease, addiction affects the brain and behavior of individuals.  Often that behavior is harmful to society as well as the addict.  We just want them to stop and make it all go away.  We don’t want to have to understand, treat, and have compassion for something that wreaks havoc with our minds, hearts, homes, jobs, wallets, communities, etc.  It frightens us because it involves an organ that houses the very makeup of an individual.  If it’s a disease, we’ve got quite an epidemic on our hands.  It would be much easier and more hopeful for all if we closed our eyes, hearts, and minds and truly believed that the individual could do this with sheer willpower.  Then we all wouldn’t have to be involved.  We could point, blame, and look the other way.  Instead, we must face it.