The average person in this country has little to no understanding of what addiction and substance abuse is really like. They get a majority of the information that they know about the disease from pop culture, or sensationalism in the media, and so they believe that addiction is something of a moral failing on the part of the addict or the result of poor parenting. They believe drug addicts to be homeless people, or someone other than people they may know and the fact that an addict could be their neighbor, friend, or coworker is a foreign concept to them. Perhaps it is time to revisit the term addiction, to look at what science knows and does not know. The fact is that science has so much to learn and part of the problem is that for too long there has been a lot of back and forth but little progress. Though I hope that with the addition of a branch dedicated to addiction for anyone going to medical school this will change.
This misunderstanding of what addiction truly is runs deep in our culture and it is partly because of how addiction is depicted in the media and partly because people who have intimate personal knowledge on the subject often times keep this information to themselves and do nothing to dispel the myths.
The culture of anonymity surrounding recovery a lot of the times allows the general public to continue to live in misinformation regarding addiction because they do not have real tangible evidence to dispute their misconceptions. To be perfectly honest though, the average person has no real need to know what addiction truly is like because it is not something that immediately affects their life. It is not something that they have to face on a day to day basis so their ignorance on the subject is understandable, but I have also found that within addicted communities this same lack of information is just as prevalent.
When I sat down to write this I realized that I personally, someone who has been in recovery for a little while now, knew very little about the science behind addiction. I knew of my own personal experience with addiction. The mental anguish that it put me through and what it was like to suffer from the disease, but I was almost completely unaware of how my addiction affected my mind and body from a scientific standpoint. Realizing this, I decided to do a little research and see what science really has to say about addiction and how, if at all, it differed from my own personal viewpoints on addiction.
As defined in the DSM 5, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, addiction is “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Even though this is the widely held scientific and medical definition of addiction, there is still some debate within the scientific community as to whether it is a disease or not. Proponents of the disease model of addiction state that addiction is a disease because it disrupts the normal functioning of the mind and so therefore like other conditions such as heart disease or diabetes, it is a disease.
However, there are some scientists that believe that addiction is not a disease, but rather it is learned behavior. They say that the disruption that occurs in the mind due to substance use is characteristic of learned behavior and not a true interference. They say that the change that occurs in an addict’s mind while in active addiction is similar to someone who really enjoys playing the piano and so it is not a disease but simply the brain’s response to enjoyable stimuli. They believe that substance abuse is a choice and to categorize it as a disease is not accurate or fair.
Scientists who subscribe to this idea of what addiction is, believe that in order for someone to overcome their addiction, they must reprogram how their brain works. Essentially they believe that through behavioral therapy alone, a person who suffered from substance abuse can change the neural pathways that strengthened during their addiction and in doing so be able to rationally and logically make choices that do not result in their using drugs.
Those in the scientific community who believe that addiction is a disease do not believe that recovery is as simple as making a choice though and they point to the long lasting changes to the brain that occur during addiction, and the thousands of people who have relapsed back into addiction after behavioral therapy as evidence of this.
Even among people who hold the belief that addiction is a disease, there is a difference in on how they believe addiction should be treated. Some within the scientific community believe that complete abstinence from mind and mood altering substances is the only way to recover from the disease while others do not believe that abstinence only is the correct way to treat drug addiction. They believe that since addiction is a disease and since the addict craves a particular substance, that they will continue to need some form of medication related to that substance in order to function normally and not spiral back into destructive behaviors.
Even the origins of addiction are not entirely clear within the scientific community. It is not entirely understood why some people, within the same family, can suffer from addiction, while others do not. It is also not known why addiction may all of a sudden appear within a generation of a family, when it was not present at any other time in the family’s lineage. But almost all within the scientific community are in agreement that addiction has a biological component, which may or not be hereditary, a social component, and a psychological component. It is believed that a person who suffers from addiction has an abnormal reaction to drugs when they ingest them and that having certain social factors such as, having an addicted parent, having a trauma early on in life, or some co-existing mental health concern can exacerbate the disease of addiction. It is believed that once a person who has the disease of addiction starts to use drugs in any form, they forfeit their ability to make a rational choice to stop and because of this they will pursue the drug at great risk to themselves or others.
So while there is still a lot of mystery surrounding addiction and how and why it produces the effects it does in addicts, we luckily live in a time where there are many options for treatment. There are 12 Step programs, which have proved effective for many people. There are medication assistance programs. There are forms of therapy that have proved to help addicts overcome their addiction and there are alternative therapies that are gaining ground. We may never truly understand addiction, but we at least have solutions to help combat it.
Rose Lockinger is a passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.