Addiction: It’s Not a Real Disease?

This post was also featured at Wisconsin Voices for Recovery.

It’s funny how many people still consider addiction (substance use disorder) a thing that it is not—a moral failing, a consequence of making bad, conscious choices, a spiritual illness, something else. I’ve made peace with the fact that we’re not going to remove the stigma of addiction in my lifetime and it makes me sad, but occasionally I have to find humor in how misunderstood this disease is.

Imagine an ad that reads:

“David was experiencing anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, and morning shakes. When medications and attempting to moderate proved less and less effective, David’s primary care provider referred him to a Board-Certified Addictionologist. Now David is alcohol free and his life and health are back to normal.”

This is not much different from ads that I see for other diseases, such as hypertension—yet I don’t perceive such an ad appearing in real-life any time soon. Many people still like to argue that substance use disorder is not a disease and that it doesn’t deserve the attention it needs. Despite the alarming statistics of the opioid crisis in North America, the overall addiction crisis is not front-page news (or it rarely is), yet there are hundreds of people dying all the time. If there was a flu virus killing people at the rates that SUD is killing people, we would’ve been panicking and talking about it and trying to do everything to eradicate it. But addiction is a disease that comes with a reputation that will probably take years to erase. We still use words like “addict,” “junkie,” “drunk,” and this disease is still portrayed in media as something that happens to people who are different from everybody else, people who perhaps “deserve” to have it because they are “bad.” They are morally corrupt or weird, they are less deserving of sympathy because they make terrible decisions that a responsible, “normal” person would never make.

In reality, addiction affects everyone equally no matter his or her social or economic status; there are people with SUD who are present in every human strata, addiction does not discriminate… but we do.

I know that in my professional life, I’m almost always preaching to the converted. I’m surrounded by those who are either affected by this disease or are in the field that deals with it, so it’s easy to think that stigma is less prevalent than it is. But it’s not less prevalent. We’ve only just begun to untangle the confusion around it.

I know it’s hard for people with SUD to explain what it is that they’re going through, even those closest to them and, sadly, often people are so prejudiced to begin with, nothing could convince them that SUD is not the fault of those suffering from it – No more than hypertension is for those who suffer from it. It’s a brain disorder that can be arrested with the right treatment, but part of that treatment must at some point include the support from the world beyond that of the recovery world.

“Addiction” is almost synonymous with the word “Shame,” and people often don’t address it because of shame – because they are afraid of ridicule – because it seems better to hide it, isolate with it – rather than risk getting shamed. Imagine if you had to be ashamed about having to get chemo when dealing with cancer. Or what if you had to hide your diagnosis of said cancer for the fear of getting fired or having your children taken away? Impossible. But that’s what people with SUD have to deal with on regular basis—hiding, pretending, and, unfortunately, dying in silence because to be vocal about it would mean they would be ostracized and punished. My imaginary ad is funny only until we realize that this is not a joke, this is a matter of life and death and that fighting stigma is a lifelong battle that people with SUD and those around them have to fight in order to fully recover.

 

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