Moral Failing or Disease? Substance Abuse and the People we Love

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By: Jana Greene

Hello, dear Readers.

Earlier today, a friend whom I respect very much asked if I believed addiction was really 100% a legitimate disease.

I do.

In much the same way that the medical establishment used to consider homosexuality a mental disorder and have learned otherwise, I think we will come to understand substance abuse a disease, rather than a moral failure. The science is there.

Today, I hope to write about this subject, which can bring up volatile reactions. I hope to open a respectful dialogue between the addicts AND the people who love them.

Before you read on, I encourage you to visit YouTube and watch this little video. It is simple and profound, and might help us all to understand the nature of addiction a little better:

CLICK HERE TO WATCH VIDEO

 

In addition to being an alcoholic myself, I do battle with several other diseases on the daily. Through no ‘fault’ of my own, I suffer chronic pain from one disorder and a plethora of horrible symptoms from others – lots of others.

I also struggle with depression, anxiety, and ADD/OCD. There’s no point in presenting a picture of myself to you that has been polished up – this is the plain truth.

I’m pretty sure that everyone these days is on board with believing that mental illness is just that – illness.

Disease.

But for many people, addiction is a moral failing;  a matter of “Don’t you know right from wrong?” Calling it a disease seems like a really convenient cop-out. It can be highly offensive to people to people who do battle with recognized physical diseases such as cancer – innocent of being an accessory to their own illness.

I felt as helpless to recover from my alcoholism 16 years ago as I feel now to recover from my painful migraines or treat my connective tissue disorder.

The difference between addiction and cancer or diabetes is that addiction is so brutal on others who love the addict. Often, a trail of destruction is left for others to clean up. The user may actively choose the drug rather than the loved one. And that, my friend, hurts like crazy for those around him.

I believe that is why there is such a knee-jerk reaction to calling substance abuse a ‘disease.’ I used to get bent out of shape when people inferred that my drinking was all ‘choice’ and poor decision making, but now I feel more compassion for them. Many are thrust into the darkness through no fault of their own.

For those of you who are hurting from the behaviors of an addict or alcoholic you love, let me first say that I am so sorry. I am so incredibly sorry that you are going through what you are. And if I had only my laundry list of physical health issues to deal with, and someone tried to convince me that an alcoholic was suffering from a disease, I’d probably be pretty ticked off, too.

But shaming the addict only makes them feel more hopeless about seeking treatment.

I promise you that your family member did not aspire to be a user before she got addicted. She is undoubtedly ashamed beyond reason.

Before I got sober, of course I knew that my drinking was wrong. My life had clearly become unmanageable. I knew right from wrong and I knew I was hurting people I loved while killing myself. Every morning I would swear not to touch a drop, and every evening, I would get blind drunk. The very definition of insanity.

From the very first drink I ever had, I needed more. There was no segue into addiction for me. Something in my brain that had been genetically present all my life was activated in that moment. I felt like it was what I was born to do. A switch flipped.

How many people do you know who have never tried a drop of alcohol? What if a portion of people who tried a drink came to crave the high compulsively and became convinced that they must indulge just to feel ‘normal?’ With other drugs, the switch can flip even faster and harder.

It was as if I was possessed. My mind felt hijacked. Eventually, I’d convinced myself I’d be a better mother if I had my nightly glass of wine (which, by the way, was NEVER a single glass.) I’m naturally so keyed up and worrisome, I’m doing everyone a big, fat favor by having a drink. You can tell yourself a lot of things and eventually believe them. Before you know it, your life revolves around getting/keeping/using more – it’s an obsession.

We cling on to our ‘best friend’ –  who we thought would numb our hurts and lift our spirits and make us better – and defend it rabidly. At its core, addiction is a spiritual disease that branches out into the mind and body. It’s all intertwined and it’s all very difficult to stop once it has taken root. Without direct intervention from my Higher Power, I am doomed to do things my way, which didn’t work and never will.

If you are the addict or alcoholic in this scenario, let me also say this – I am so sorry you are going through this. I’m so sorry the monster has taken over and you feel helpless to stop it.

Nobody WANTS to get to that point. Most of us don’t realize it too late – we are already caught in the spiral. Do we have the choice to quit and get it together? We do! Do we know HOW to make that happen while in the throes of addiction?

Most of us do not.

In much the same way a diabetic who eats an entire cake in one sitting is giving in to his disease and soothing himself,  we might drink or use for the same reason. It is ultimately up to us to choose to take action and get sober.

So then, are we addicts and alcoholics off the hook because it’s a legitimate medical illness?  We are not.  Addiction is a TREATABLE disease. There are resources to help and vibrant recovery communities in many places. There are proven methods of assistance and reliable support groups to help. You need never feel alone.

We can and DO recover! And when we do, the whole family experiences healing.

If you are concerned about your use, you can start to seek help by talking to your medical doctor.

Because, you know…it’s a disease.

And lastly, this:

The National Center for Addiction and Substance abuse published nifty information on why substance abuse is a legitimate disease. For more information, check it out here:

How Substance Use Changes the Brain

God bless us, EVERY one.

 

 

 

 

 

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