Although the American Medical Association categorizes addiction as a disease, many people still believe addiction is a matter of willpower or morality. The fact is, no amount of willpower will ever arrest the cycle of addiction. Furthermore, addicts are not “bad” people. Addicts are sick people. In no uncertain terms, addiction is a brain disease that must be treated with recovery.
The Disease Concept of Addiction
Is addiction a disease? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Addiction is a disease of the brain that affects millions of people around the world. Addiction is chronic, progressive and fatal. It meets all the criteria used by medical professionals to define the nature of a disease. Furthermore, the dictionary definition of “disease” makes it clear that addiction qualifies.
Webster’s dictionary defines a disease as a “condition of the body that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.” The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” If you Google the definition of disease, you will find many definitions just like these two. Indeed, by definition, addiction is a disease.
A Brief History on Addiction as a Disease
The idea that alcoholism/ drug addiction might be a disease began to take hold in the early 1900’s when many Americans were becoming addicted to alcohol and opiates. The health problems that resulted from physical addiction led doctors to believe that being addicted was not a moral deficiency or evidence of a lack of willpower – it was a legitimate medical condition.
In 1926, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded. Co-founded by a medical doctor, AA began calling alcoholism a disease. In 1956, the American Medical Association followed suit and named alcoholism as an illness. In 1987, the AMA and most other medical organizations officially termed addiction a disease, regardless of whether the condition was caused by drug or alcohol abuse.
Today, the majority of medical professionals and health care organizations around the world recognize and treat addiction as a disease. And, the most recent studies on alcoholism and addiction are revealing more about how substance abuse affects the brain as an illness.
Some Medical Jargon about Addiction
To further defend the fact that addiction is a disease, it might help to understand how addiction works on the brain.
Addiction affects the reward center of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens, anterior cingulate cortex, and amygdala. The chemicals from drugs and alcohol alter brain chemistry and change the brain’s reward structures such that the brain will embrace the chemicals, react to them, and then demand more. More use of these chemicals causes the brain to want more. Once the reward center rewires itself to accommodate these chemicals, the brain will begin to associate certain people, places, events and activities with the addiction reward, which triggers cravings and behavioral/biological cues.
Addiction degrades the brain over time and causes the brain to stop functioning normally, causing symptoms like depression, a lack of cognition, and psychosis. Long after a person has been brought to their knees as a result of the consequences caused by addiction, he or she will still want more of the chemicals they have been using to make them “feel good.”
Age-Old Lies: Addicts are Bad or Weak People
Many misinformed people still refuse to accept that addiction is a disease. They believe addicted people are low-life junkies who contribute to the moral decay of American society. This is unfortunate. There is overwhelming evidence from the medical community that addiction is a disease.
There are a number of reasons why people believe addicts are “bad” rather than “sick” people. Some people think addicts are lazy degenerates who enjoy living as outcasts. Other people come from religious backgrounds and are taught that drug use is a “sin” or even that addiction is a demonstration of demonic possession. In these cases, addicts are amoral sinners who need to be punished.
Other people perceive addiction as a weakness. They believe people who have become addicted lack the inner strength to overcome the effects of drugs or alcohol. “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get it together,” they say! Little do they know that addiction is not a matter of willpower or weakness….it’s a recognized medical condition. There is no amount of willpower that can overcome addiction without treatment.
How the Criminal Justice System Perpetuates the Lie that Addicts Are Bad
It’s no wonder so many Americans believe addiction is a matter of willpower and morality, rather than a sickness. The federal government has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to addiction. Those who are caught in the possession of illegal narcotics are punished through the criminal justice system. This results in jail time, hefty fines, and convictions that have far-reaching consequences. Most people do not understand how unjust the drug laws are in America and will hop on the proverbial bandwagon, perpetuating the lie that addicts are bad or weak people.
More than 20 million Americans have been convicted of a felony. Most of these are the result of a drug-related conviction of some kind. It’s no secret that people who have addiction issues end up with legal problems. But, what most Americans don’t know is that current drug laws are incredibly harsh. The punishment for being an addict in the United States is unbelievable. Instead of promoting educational programs and treatment options for addicted Americans, the federal government continues to spend billions of dollars to fight the so-called War on Drugs, which punishes addicts for being addicts.
Getting caught with a crack pipe or being arrested for even a tiny amount of meth or cocaine is a felony that comes with prison time in most states. Being branded a convicted felon for being an addict only perpetuates that lie that addiction only happens to bad or weak people.
A Final Thought about Addiction as a Disease
Addiction creates a sense of powerlessness and causes people to use drugs or alcohol against their own will. This is why willpower doesn’t work when treating addiction! Once addiction has control of the brain, it demands to be fed. It creates a perpetual cycle that will continue until it is arrested. The only way to recover from addiction is by getting professional help. This is because addiction is a disease.
Does addiction have control of you? Learn the four telltale signs that addiction is controlling your life.
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