Is Addiction a Disease?

With all the reality TV such as “My Strange Addiction”, ”Celebrity Rehab”, and “Hoarders”, there’s never been a time when addiction has been more widely observed.

Additionally, I’ve noticed from scientific and popular media a push for addiction awareness and the advocacy of treating it as a disease. Recognizing the evidence from brain scans, and after decades of observing the behavior of those addicted, some of these advocates even go so far as to criticize 12 Step programs for focusing on a spiritual solution rather than emphasizing addiction as a physical phenomena.

Here’s an example of this push from the organization, It dispels of the idea that the addict is a bad person by portraying them as having a disease:

Now at the same time, we have intelligent and leading voices pointing out the other side of the coin. Calling addiction a disease can give an addict an excuse for their behavior. “I can’t help it. I have a disease.” Also, how can it be a disease if all one has to do to stop it is not do something–drink, shoot up, gamble, etc? It rubs people the wrong way giving it the same label as someone with multiple sclerosis or cancer.

And Bill Wilson himself, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, said this at the National Catholic Clergy Conference on Alcoholism in 1961:

“We have never called alcoholism a disease because, technically speaking, it is not a disease entity.”

Right: Weak-willed or victim of a disease?

So it seems today that we roughly have three groupings of how to address addiction: this new wave of promoters for addiction as a disease; those who espouse 12 Step solutions (usually the addicts themselves) with the emphasis on a spiritual solution–some of whom call addiction a disease and others who don’t; and last, those who think addiction is simply a matter of making bad choices.

Where do you stand?

Like many issues it has become one of extremes, each side reacting to the other by going further apart. As such, there has become this polarized debate suggesting that addiction has to either be a disease or a choice.

Personally, I toward a combination of the two, and as such, I advocate for neither. And let me next get out of the way that at 23 I got my second DUI, went to treatment, cleaned up my act for 6 months, then bounced in and out of sobriety for a few more months before taking my last drink/drug right after my 24th birthday. I’ve been clean now for 7 years.

To me, it seems that the TIME magazine article linked above as well as the video come from people who recognize the malady of addiction as being more than simply a bad choice. There is something unique in the addict’s brain, a physical/mental peculiarity. I agree. But to drive this point home, they leap to calling it a disease, and this I don’t agree with for the reasons given by the skeptics.

I don’t agree with the skeptics, though, that addiction is simply a choice. Because even if an addict makes the decision not to act out on their problem behavior, you’re still left with an individual with the same brain anomaly that is evident regardless.

I think the answer lies in the middle: addiction as a non-disease physical phenomenon

In all, though, I think it’s great that popular recognition grows when credible voices get behind the idea that addiction is more than a choice. With greater acceptance of this comes better approaches for those suffering–whether it be an addict’s family trying to cope or a judge looking to sentence a repeat drunk-driver.

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