Is Addiction a Disease? Or a Moral, Social, & Spiritual Failing?

Brain addictionAddiction as a Disease

The latest scientific, evidence based thinking refers to addiction as a brain disease. People who become addicted have a brain-based disease, or a chemical-based predisposition to becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs. Some of us can drink alcohol and indulge in narcotics without becoming addicted. Others can’t.

When my husband and I were young, we indulged in the common recreational drugs that were available at the time. Occasionally while we were dating, we smoked pot, or took speed, or dropped acid. It seemed harmless at the time. Neither of us became addicted. By the time we got married, we weren’t using narcotics, except for a few puffs on an occasional joint. By the time we had kids, we didn’t do that either. It just wasn’t part of our lifestyle anymore. We continued to drink occasionally. And we still do–mostly beer (him) and wine (me). We might even drink something harder, a cocktail for instance, during special outings or at a back-yard BBQ.

But we don’t worry that we may come addicted. It’s just not an issue.

For our son though, it is an issue. His initial use of alcohol and narcotics led to an addiction that his father and I never got. We weren’t physically or chemically inclined to become addicted. He was.

Was the fact that his narcotic use led to addiction because he was morally weak? Because he was too stupid or weak-minded or self-indulgent that he could not use narcotics moderately for recreational purposes only, as his parents had?

No. My husband and I never struggled with trying to “resist” drugs or alcohol. We could use it or not use it whenever we wanted. We weren’t morally superior because we used in moderation and eventually stopped using because it no longer interested us and wasn’t desired.

Yet because his early drug use led to a severe addiction that lasted years, and our early drug use didn’t, he is considered a social pariah, and we are considered upstanding citizens.

Our drug use never created an overwhelming desire to use more and more. We never had to use “will-power” to stop using. We never had to pray to stop using. We never had to go to rehab or 12-step. It never tried to take over our lives. It never affected us the way it affected our son. We weren’t better than him. Our brain chemistry was just different, so it was never a problem for us.

Believe it or not, some people who use heroin do not become addicted. They just don’t. It is considered one of the most powerful drugs there is, yet if I used it, I know I would not become addicted. Not because I’m stronger than other people who become addicted to it. But because I’m not chemically inclined to do so.

Yet, as a society, we still claim moral and spiritual superiority to people who become addicted. We still blame them for their addiction. We still think they are weak or immoral or bad. We still think it’s their fault. Even those who “know” addiction is a disease, treat addiction like a social or moral or spiritual failing. We’ve become conditioned to think that way.

Even addicts buy into this thinking. Even mothers of addicts.

Addiction as a Moral Failing

I’ve been participating in a movement by mother’s of addicts, where we try to help each other cope with the difficult work we have to do in trying to help our sick children. And we’re also trying to help society understand addiction as a disease, to blaming the victim of addiction for the disease, and to erase the stigma attached to it. Yet even within that forum, I still hear mothers blaming their children for their addiction.

Here’s what one mother wrote recently, a mother who had been an addict herself once. She starts off comparing the abuse of the welfare system to the abuse of drugs:

“Welfare has gotten a bad rap by people who manipulate the system and do nothing to better their situation. Sort of like the addict who continually relapses after they have the tools and are just to hard-headed to use them because they know how to manipulate their addictions right back into a worse situation than they started in.”

This same mother earlier called addiction a disease. Yet she goes on to say that relapse happens not because the disease that went into remission has now returned (as we do with cancer patients), but because they are “too hard-headed” to do what the doctors told them to do. Then she goes on to say that the depression and other mental issues that are produced by the disease are “self-inflicted.” As if they brought this on themselves by becoming addicted in the first place: It’s their fault.

Addiction as a Social Failing

Here’s another statement from a mother, quoting from a drug counseling textbook that she agrees with:

“Addiction is a disease of isolation; addiction is the solution to [that isolation] and the consequence of [that isolation], the addict’s impaired ability to develop and maintain relationships”.

The book admits that addiction is a disease, but then goes on to blame the disease on the “addict’s impaired ability to develop and maintain relationships.” Really?  So people with good relationships and social skills never become addicted? Only socially impaired people become addicted? Only people with “isolation” issues?

These statements are another way of blaming the victim of addiction. He’s inferior, socially impaired, isolated. Therefore he becomes addicted to alleviate the isolation and feel “normal.” This stigmatizes the addict.

The fact is, so-called normal people with healthy relationships and good social skills become addicted. Doctors, lawyers, politicians, actors, musicians, plumbers, teachers, and preachers become addicted. Not just social misfits.

Addiction as a Spiritual Failing

Another mother goes on to say that 12-Step programs are so important for addicts, because they help them discover their “true selves” rather than hiding behind a false “social” self. In other words, people who become addicted weren’t as spiritually evolved or as in touch with their “true selves” as the rest of us. That’s why they need 12-step programs and we don’t.

Again, this is placing a stigma on addicts: People who use drugs are spiritually inferior, less evolved, than people who don’t use drugs.

This is perhaps my biggest gripe with 12-Step programs—the belief that you and I don’t need them. Just the poor, weak addict. The rest of us are already in touch with our “higher selves.”

To be clear: 12-Step programs, which are spiritually based, are wonderful programs for anyone who wants to acquire a spiritual practice, whether they are addicts or not. But to assume that people who are addicts need them more than the rest of us, is to assume that addiction is a sign of spiritual failing rather than a chemical imbalance: If only they had been more spiritually evolved, they never would have become addicted. Do we say this about cancer victims? People with heart disease?

Some addicts may find that 12-steps programs help them to cope better deal better with their disease. It may help them to recover, to keep the disease in remission, to abstain from the alcohol or drugs that will cause a relapse.

Spiritual programs help cancer victims too. It helps them to have hope, it calms and comforts them, it lowers blood pressure, it builds the immune system, it helps them to heal. It may even help them to become in touch with their truer selves. But we don’t assume cancer patients are less in touch with their truer selves than the rest of us.

Just the addict deserves that stigma, it appears.

Breaking the Stigmas of Addiction

The acceptance of addiction as a disease is only now becoming the norm. But there are so many assumptions about addiction still circulating, consciously and unconsciously, that even doctors, addiction counselors, and rehab programs still blame the addict for the addiction, still treat these patients as if they are morally, socially, and spiritually impaired.

Even those whose loved ones are suffering from addiction slip into this mode of thinking.

We need to call them on it when they do. We need to be alert, and dismantle the stigmas wherever they appear.

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14 thoughts on “Is Addiction a Disease? Or a Moral, Social, & Spiritual Failing?

  1. I suspect all of our issues have a mind, body, spirit, connection. So while addiction may be a disease like cancer, in order to heal properly there’s going to have to be a spiritual, emotional, psychological component. We’re starting to understand this with cancer patients, you can’t just treat the body as if it were a separate thing from the rest of the person, not if you’re trying to promote genuine healing

    As to the physical nature of addiction, absolutely, some people are physically vulnerable, some are not. For example, I have something in my liver that breaks down certain pain meds before they ever reach my brain. Some people become addicted to these meds, meds I can’t even feel, meds that are completely useless to me because they never really enter my system like they are supposed to. I remember watching some people become alcoholics, start drinking heavily as if they had met a new friend, and realizing that they were experiencing something different than I was. I could have a couple drinks and relax, but much more than that and my body would rebel, go right into a headache, nausea, hangover mode.

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    • I think you are right, there is a mind, body, spirit connection and all those things need to be looked at together. There’s still so much that we do not know. Interesting about the pain meds that you can’t access. Another example of how things affect us in different ways. So glad you shared these with us.

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  2. Thanks for posting and trying to help break addiction bigotry in society. Many of the top researchers in this field have discovered genetics and environment coupled together is what is causing addiction. Children who are raised in adverse environments are showing these signs throughout their studies on a continual basis. I hope that someday soon, we will spread humanity to the people who matter most- our children. When society realizes how immoral and wrong it is to hit our innocent and dependent children, we will see a decline in the number of addicted, human beings.
    Keep up the great work you are doing. It is only a matter of time before the stigma is gone. Just as we thought the world was flat and slavery was good- we now know better. Thanks again for your post.

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    • Thank you, Dustin. I agree with you about our children. They say that by the time they are five years old their personalities, their sense of self has been set. Those are the most important years of their development. And yet so few parents have the knowledge of how to raise healthy children–they just do it on the wing, or follow the examples of their parents. Poor parenting is passed down from one generation to the next.

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  3. Great post. Much that needs to be said. One point I am no longer in agreement with, though. I would have been a year or so ago, but now I think differently. Where you say you know you wouldn’t become addiceted to heroin: you can’t know that, IMO. Or that you can’t under certain circumstances become an alcoholic. And I have revised my thinking that while addicts generally have the greater predisposition to becoming addicts, in general, I believe that ALL of us have the potential. It’s more of a continuum than “I have the gene” or “I don’t have the gene.” It takes a certain constellation of events/actions/genes/timing/etc for someone to become an addict. Anyway, that is my thinking at this point in my process.

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    • That’s a good point Luanne. I almost added to the post that I felt sure I would not become addicted physically, but psychologically, if I was using heroin to relieve suffering, I could become dependent upon it. I read today that anyone, even those not predisposed to become addicted, will become addicted physically if they do heroin on a daily basis for long enough. But the article also said, you don’t become addicted “Physically” if you use it occasionally or recreationally. It takes a while to build up in your system. I’m assuming for those who are predisposed (have the gene), that time frame would shorten.

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  4. I, too, have fallen prey to blaming the kid for her addiction and her relapses. Since my daughter’s overdose death I’ve often even blamed her for that, too. But I know none of it was her fault really. Intellectually I know addiction is a horrible brain disease and is an excrutiating battle to fight. However, it’s so hard to separate our emotional investment in an addict we love. For my husband and I her addiction caused a lot of resentment because it left us with the responsibility of raising her child. Resentment, blame, anger. I think they’re emotions we all experience. But in the end, I just really love her so much and am so very sad that she suffered with this horrible disease that, as her mother, my heart tells me I should have been able to cure.

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    • I’ve done the same thing too. I have to call myself on it all the time. It’s just so frustrating and enraging to see someone you love and are trying to help resist that help and continue doing things you know will make their lives worse. I used to tell my son if he had done all the things I advised him to do years ago, and every year since, he wouldn’t be in this situation. When you are thinking in those terms, which seem rationally, it’s as if they are deliberately defying you, deliberately making poor choices. And they are, but not as deliberately as it appears. More so because their brain has been high-jacked by a substance that rules them absolutely. I am so sorry for your loss. It’s so true, as mothers we feel we should be able to make things better for them, cure them. Love should be enough.

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  5. Drug addicts, people place in a deviant category, and warn everyone that the addict will rip them off,,so stay away. Isolation is unavoidable. However, even though the mentally ill did not ask for their illness, which doctors claim to stem from their gene pool, and morality plays no part (unless person kills due to psychopathic tendencies/still an illness) in a mentally ill person’s actions. The stigma is much worse as it hangs like a huge weight suspended above the head of each mental health patient. Just thought I’d mention that. BTW I’m a n addict/alcoholic, and If I apply the principles of the program to my life it’s a good day.

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    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Mental illness is another terrible stigma. I think we are beginning to wake up, to expose the myths about these diseases. Having a strong spiritual or ethical practice I think helps all of us to have good days, and help others have them as well.

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  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. “We still blame them for their addiction. We still think they are weak or immoral or bad. We still think it’s their fault.” Truer words were never written. Why IS this? Alcoholics have been around since my father, who has been buried 15 years now, and his father before him. Are we still so blind? “Problem drinkers,” we call them…someone who “can’t hold his licquor.” Well, who CAN hold that much? Anyway. Even with all my knowledge (I’ve attended lots of Al-Anon meeetings) and experience (several other alcoholics in the family, including my sister), I’m still very confused and angry on the subject. Everyone should be required to take alcoholism sensitivity training. Seriously.
    Thanks again.
    –Chris

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  7. I hear you Chris. It’s such a sad state of affairs that we don’t understand this sickness better and still blame the patient. I think things are slowly starting to change. Some day we will look back at this and realize we were living in the dark ages of addiction treatment..

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