Addiction is a Disease Not a Moral Failure

Maureen MurdockAddiction7 Comments

The best way to reduce the stigma of addiction is to recognize it is a disease and treat it as such.

One of the reasons parents like myself find our child’s addiction so bewildering is because of the changes in their behavior. From seemingly well-adjusted, happy, fun-loving children they become deceptive, manipulative and dishonest adolescents and young adults. Every parent wants to trust their child and drug abuse robs them from maintaining that trust. But rather than viewing addiction as a moral failure on the part of our child or as a result of our parenting, we must start to view addiction as a disease.

In his new book, Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, David Sheff, the author of Beautiful Boy about his own struggle with his son’s meth addiction, writes that addiction must be considered a disease devoid of moral overtones. Like other diseases, such as cardiac disease, diabetes and cancer, addiction has a substantial genetic component. Genes are now thought to account for approximately 50% of addiction risk. In addition, stress, mental illness and poverty are major risk factors.

Drugs change the brain. Psychoactive drugs artificially stimulate and over-stimulate dopamine flow in the brain resulting in a powerful reward: intense pleasure. The pleasure comes in a variety of forms: some people feel energized, others feel extremely confident, others intensely sensual, and yet others dreamy or sedated. With use over time, the drug alters the reward system in the brain and no longer effects the same euphoria. As a result, the person needs more. Sheff writes, “Because the brain has adapted to the presence of the drug, people don’t get high any longer, but not only don’t they get high, they don’t feel normal.” This increases the need for more of the drug just to feel normal. Imagine that—becoming drug dependent to feel normal.

As we know, society judges the person who uses drugs as a bad person. Because our addiction-treatment system at the present time is so ineffective, it is assumed that addicts can’t get well because they are weak willed and hopeless. The stigma of addiction is based on the assumption that good people don’t use drugs; only bad people do.

This stigma first affects teenagers who experiment, adults who seek recovery, family members who look the other way, public policy and treatment, and explains why most insurance plans don’t adequately cover addiction treatment in spite of a bill passed by Congress requiring such coverage. In addition, there’s little money for research into addiction, reducing the potential for effective treatment options.

Sheff states that the stigma and secrecy associated with drug use “has contributed to the escalation of use and has hampered treatment more than any single other factor.”

7 Comments on “Addiction is a Disease Not a Moral Failure”

  1. I don’t even know what to say anymore. My son started with bipolar and self medicating by the time he was in his early 20’s. Fast forward. He is now 40. Life is still just a roller coaster ride. Sometimes he’s clean and sober…sometimes he’s not. Sometimes he’s homeless presently he is not. Only because I helped with the payment to get him into housing. He has been in and out of treatment for years and says he will never go thru it again. He has a 4.0 at the university. He is a gifted musician. I don’t know which is the bigger problem the mental illness or the addiction. He’s on disability for mental illness. He’s been assaulted but if he reports it he’s afraid he will be killed. He was so terribly upset from someone assaulting him. He said he never ever would hit anyone and can’t understand why someone would hit and kick him. He worries about the homeless and other addicts that they may die. He is intelligent and has never stolen from his family and says he has a level of integrity that if he can’t buy what he wants he won’t cross a line of illegal behavior. So, here we are. I have gone for years to Naranon and NAMI and have learned my lessons well. In the early days I thought if I could just find the right person, the right book, the right treatment center ad nauseam. It didn’t matter how much of my life I gave or how much of the family’s resources. I have finally begun to lose hope. I have been doing more grieving now. I help with certain things that would not be considered codependent kinds of things. I’ve tried over the years to establish a safety net so that when he is in trouble he has professionals he can turn to so I can just be him mom. I am broken hearted but, he is too. Almost 20 years. I would never have believed that I would some day give up hope. We were about as normal as any other family. Great love..little drama. I asked his siblings and him if anyone had ever hurt him as a child…something that could explain this but, his siblings said no he was perfectly normal until all this started. My son said no …he had a happy childhood. There is alcoholism on my side of the family…my mother and her identical twin plus others. So…sadness prevails at this point. The level of suffering is profound for everyone involved. Just a kind of hopelessness that can’t be softened no matter how many therapists I see. Sorry for the long missive. It’s just so damned sad and the pain cuts so deep.

  2. I think drug addiction is not a disease ..We have to guide, educate & rehabilitate these youngsters and if we succeed in doing so, we can easily fight with drug addiction in society … I strongly feel if we change the subconscious mind of these addicted people , we can easily overcome this scenario..

  3. I was told to be “mad at the illness” not the person. I have shared this with others and one woman told me recently that this helped her deal with the death of her Mom. I told a young woman this as she described how mean her Mom is to her sometimes. She is not able to get what she needs from her Mom, and may never be able to.

  4. Maureen–Once again I found your blog so well written and right on target–I wonder what can be done as you make such good points and yet people tend to think the same way about addiction that they did 25 years ago–it is so sad that not much progress gets made in this area.Thank you for writing this blog and for all your good info and feelings about it all.
    Cindy

  5. Thank you, Maureen. I have been finally grieving the fact that my father, who died with alcoholism many years ago, never was understood for his disease. It was definitely considered a moral failure and bewildered all of us terribly. I wish he had had caring and understanding support, and that we had too. I so appreciate your writing of this.

  6. I just saw the film “A Beautiful Mind” about the brilliant by schizophrenic mathematician John Nash. While his disease also had a terrible stigma, he was also highly respected for his genius and contributions. In contrast, when we fail to see addiction as a disease, we blame the victim and then fail to help provide adequate services for the addict/alcoholic to overcome the disease. Yes, all patients have a role to play in their recovery–that’s crucial, whether it’s eating healthy for heart disease or stretching the body for physical rehabilitation or attending some kind of therapy sessions and taking appropriate medications for mental illness (as necessary). Of course, finding the balance between what the patient can and should do for him or herself and what society can do via a strong healthcare system is difficult, but we are still far from having an adequate healthcare system to contribute to its half of the bargain.

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