Addiction is classified as a medical disease, just as asthma and diabetes are diseases. However, society has long treated addiction in a much more negative light than other diseases. Even when conditions such as cancer and hypertension result from habits like smoking cigarettes or eating a salt-rich diet, we treat the disease without judging the patient. Not so with addiction: Society often views addicts and alcoholics with disdain, blaming them for not having the strength or the willpower to quit.
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Despite great advances over the last 60-80 years in treating addiction as a disease, little has changed in the way we view addicts as people. Alcoholics are “bums,” and addicts are “junkies” or “heads.” Society makes these judgments despite the fact that addiction plagues people from all walks of life: rich, poor, and middle-class, across every ethnic group.
Addiction is more than just a physical affliction; it’s also a mental and spiritual malady. In addition to the physical decline drugs and alcohol inevitably cause, the result is also a decline in morals and decision-making. Addiction leads to behaviors that society, rightly, judges to be undesirable: Lying, cheating, stealing, neglecting our responsibilities, sloth, carelessness, and recklessness, to name a few. We endanger other people by driving under the influence, or we spend the family’s grocery money on drugs or alcohol. These are behaviors few people would defend – other than addicts and alcoholics themselves.
Instead of hating the addiction, society hates the addict. The more society tells us we are “bad people,” the more we believe it. The result is an endless, downward spiral: We feel worthless because we drink and drugs, and we drink and drugs because we feel worthless. This is reinforced by the fact that we simply cannot quit on our own, no matter how much we want to or how many times we try.
People say things about us like, “If he loved his children, he would quit,” or, “How could she just throw away a brilliant career,” or simply, “Why can’t she drink like a lady?” There is an assumption that addictive behavior is a decision, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We no more choose to be an addict or an alcoholic than we would choose to have cancer.
Like any terminal disease, addiction is progressive, incurable, and fatal if left untreated. As with other diseases, though, we can, with treatment, go into remission from our disease. We can and do recover.
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