Addiction is a disease that tells its victims they don't have a disease. There are no blood counts to measure the level of your addiction, no MRI scans to measure its influence in your brain, and no definitive DNA test to identify an addiction gene. Even though the American Medical Association has defined alcoholism as an illness since 1956, the culture at large still insists on treating alcoholism and addiction as a moral issue. We tend to think addicts use the disease model as a cop-out for self-indulgent, weak-willed behavior. Perhaps it is too threatening to acknowledge that addiction isn't fixed with rigid self-discipline and a strong moral compass.
Don't kid yourself. None of us are immune to finding life too painful, or to feeling too ashamed to face ourselves. We live in a culture riddled with addiction, ego-driven greed, and technology distraction to pay homage to the souls we carry within our bodies.
When we say we find it mindboggling that successful people can throw it all away for drugs or alcohol, we are once again fueling the stigmatization of the addict. We are minimizing the profound psychic pain of every addict who picks up a drink knowing he or she won't be able to stop, who injects a needle with drugs from an unknown source, who compulsively eats boxes of chocolates after being diagnosed with diabetes, or who destroys a marriage because of an insatiable craving to watch online pornography.
At the same time, it is all too easy for those not afflicted with this disease to imagine that their own emotional pain is equivalent to what addicts feel. This couldn't be further from the truth. Addicts can't just shake off their pain by going to the movies and eating a small box of popcorn, by taking a hike with the dog, or by watching a sunset with a good friend. For recovering addicts to experience relief in these small ways is a major triumph.
Drawing quick conclusions about the life-and-death of addicts when one doesn't have the necessary knowledge, experience, or perspective can lead to self-righteousness. There is a tendency to think we aren't like "those" people: we can handle life in a way that appears correct, moral and sane. However, I find that even those not struggling with addiction are vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed by the stressors of daily living. Like addicts, they can suffer from lack of intimate connection or from alienation. This common ground should become the basis for compassion, rather than for continued judgment and condescension.
It's time for all of us to face with greater compassion the depths of hell that the disease of addiction can inflict on its victims.
I have worked in the addiction recovery field for more than 30 years. Despite my best professional efforts, I have lost many beautiful, talented, intelligent patients from every walk of life to this disease. The mystery of why some addicts sustain long-term abstinence while others relapse continues to drive me to delve deeper into understanding how to cure addiction and mental illness, and most importantly, how to protect those especially vulnerable to untimely death. But, after all the deaths we have seen in the public eye, isn't it time to wake up to the fact that addiction can't be cured by money, property and prestige, fame or glory, great willpower, or great moral values?
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