Is Addiction Really a Disease?

I’m blessed to have people in my life that keep me grounded. When they see a soapbox in my path, they kick either me or the box because they know I don’t belong on them.

I love a good argument but I also know that if we’re arguing, there’s little chance that we’ll be better for it or change each others minds. I favor discourse, diversity of beliefs/values, and facts. I seek out people who believe and think differently than I do. I want to learn from them and (on my good days) I seek to humbly share my experience, strength, and hope with others.

In that spirit, I will address a question that keeps resurfacing as we wrestle with the heroin epidemic in Maine:

“Is addiction really a disease?”

Well, facts first: Here is a list of respected organizations who say that addiction is a disease:

– The American Medical Association
– The World Health Organization
– The National Institute on Drug Abuse
– The American Psychiatric Association
– The American Psychological Association

Those are some pretty heavy hitting experts who say things like this:

“In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions or a strong will. In fact, because drugs change the brain in ways that foster compulsive drug abuse, quitting is difficult, even for those who are ready to do so.”

– National Institute on Drug Abuse https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction

We know that addiction has a genetic link and that millions of Americans are predisposed to addiction by virtue of their DNA. We know that people develop physiological and mental dependence on substances and that moving away from dependence most often results in withdrawal. We know that a addiction is a life-long process and that even when a person has achieved abstinence, they are never free of risk of relapsing or of developing a new addiction.

So what causes the controversy? Why do we not want to see addiction as a disease?

The biggest commonality I see is fear. None of us want to believe that addiction can touch us or those we love. No parent can tolerate the idea of harm coming to their children, much less the nightmare that is addiction.

Yet we live in a society in which drug use is not only celebrated and steeped in our traditions but is also expected of adults socially. Maybe you did a double take reading that last sentence.

Alcohol is a drug, folks.
It’s the true gateway drug.
Caffeine is a drug.
It’s just socially acceptable to be addicted to coffee
Nicotine is a drug
Though it’s progressively less socially accepted
Medications are drugs.

We want to believe that having sufficient willpower will safeguard us. We want to believe that a strong moral compass is all we need to steer clear of becoming one of those people (my people). We want to believe that we are in control of ourselves and our lives and our destinies. (Go watch Jim Carey’s movie the Truman Show again until you get it).

Nobody intends to become an addict. Nobody wants to be addicted. No child ever said, “I hope when I grow up I can sell my body for a couple bags of heroin.” Nobody takes their first drink or first hit or first injection and imagines that they’ll end up in a detox or a jail cell or the morgue.

Will power is not enough. I heard this eloquently stated by Ms.Jackie Conn recently (check out her blog she’s brilliant). She’s addressing weight loss and life changes but she could just as easily be describing alcoholism or drug addiction if you substitute “get clean and sober” for “weight management”

“Maybe you have been up and down because you’re counting on willpower and missing the underlying issues that need to be addressed. If it were just a willpower thing there would be far fewer people fighting to keep their weight down. It’s not so much about willpower. It’s a matter of learning new ways to cope, learning how to make weight management adjustments that are a good fit with our lives, and mostly recognizing weight management is within our power to achieve and sustain.”

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.