If I had a dollar for every time someone suggests that addiction is a choice, not a disease, I’d be very wealthy. Because addicts are the source of their own illness, it’s easy to see why people have a hard time accepting addiction as a real disease. It is true that there are choices involved in the decision to start using and the decision to stop using. However, none of that disqualifies it as a disease.
Type Two Diabetics make the unhealthy choices that lead them to their disease. However, no one is trying to claim that the disease isn’t real. You can be the cause of the problem and still have a medical condition. Just because it is your fault doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Diabetics also make the choice to recover. They seek medical attention, they monitor their blood sugar and they use insulin.
Addiction is no different. We make that choice to start using drugs. But let’s remember that in the opioid epidemic, thousands of people only took the drugs that were prescribed to them by their doctor for a legitimate reason. Due to the abysmal health education in this country, the average person may not know the risks. It’s even less likely that they understand that prescription painkillers are just lab made, pharmaceutical grade heroin. If this was more widely understood, I bet a lot less people would be accepting prescriptions for OxyContin for their headache or sprained ankle. These are serious drugs that were developed for serious problems. The reason they are being prescribed left and right for ridiculous ailments has to do with the reckless greed of Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin. I will elaborate on that sorry situation in a future post.
So even when justified, addicts have made the choice to start taking drugs. Legally or illegally, it doesn’t matter. With the genetic predisposition in place and the correct environmental factors at play, the addiction takes hold. Withdrawal is not a choice. The pain of true opioid withdrawal is proof that the devil is real. The need to stop this pain is a choice in the way that a starving person chooses to eat a sandwich.
Getting clean is also a choice. We have to decide we are ready to change our lives. But that choice alone is simply not enough for most of us. Diabetics choose to get well, but they still need medical assistance in most cases to change their way of life. The same is true for addicts. Medical detox, in-patient treatment, and out-patient clinics all play a part in our journey of recovery. Just like most conventionally sick people, we cannot do it alone.
It is undeniable that there are choices involved in addiction, but that does not invalidate the fact that addiction is a disease. It is recognized by the Center for Disease Control and the Surgeon General. Doctors, therapists, psychiatrists and nurses will tell you that it’s a disease. If you don’t believe these people, who are you holding out for? What expert are you waiting to hear from before you’ll finally concede that you are not, in fact, smarter than all of these experts?
There are four very important attributes to addiction that indicate that it is a disease:
- Progressive: If left untreated, it will get worse.
- Chronic: It doesn’t just go away. It is long term, and persistent even with the help of treatment.
- Genetic: Addiction runs in families. Science tells us there are genetic differences in the brains of people predisposed to addiction.
- Fatal: Without intervention, most addicts will die from complications of the disease. Whether it is an overdose, a drug related crime, or liver or other organ failure, this disease kills.
Given all of these facts, some people out there still don’t believe addiction is a disease. Keep in mind there are also a disturbing number of people out there who believe the earth is flat and that the moon landing was faked. There are conspiracy theorists for anything and everything controversial. Even years from now when science has blown this debate out of the water, there will still be people who refuse to accept it. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will not only stand by their ignorance but double down on it.
The problem with this is that these people can be the partners or parents of addicts who are in need of support and understanding. Getting and staying clean is so much harder when you have people who are supposed to be close to you undermining your illness. So much of recovery happens emotionally, and having that support makes the fight a little easier to win.
So if you love an addict, put your pride to the side. Get behind them and help them fight this disease the same way you would if it was any other illness.