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.

A Flash of Insight, or Magical Thinking?

cloud-ground-lightning National GeographicHave you ever had a dream so devastating that you woke with a headache and unshakable sense of doom? Yet so powerful it provoked flashes of insight about life and reality?

The Dream

I woke from such a dream recently. It was my daughter’s wedding day and everything that could go wrong went wrong. We arrived at the church only to discover no one had come to decorate it. The food we’d ordered was half-prepared. My daughter showed up in her beautiful gown, but we’d forgotten to get her hair done or her make-up. It was so horrible, we cancelled the wedding and sent everyone home. The wedding party climbed into a car and was driving away when my daughter said, “Stop! I can’t wait, I just want this over!”

So we stopped at a tiny diner, and that’s where the wedding took place. I tried to talk her into going to someplace nicer, where it wasn’t so shabby and depressing. But she insisted. I had wanted to take photos of the wedding to hang on our walls, but how could I take photos of this? It was too awful.

The beautiful wedding day we both had dreamed about was ruined, and there was nothing I could do to change it. Our worst nightmare had come true and it was all my fault. I shouldn’t have left the wedding planning up to her. I should have taken charge. I should have had a check-off list and made sure everything had turned out as planned. But it was too late. I screwed up. I let this happen. And now there was nothing I could do to change it.

Then I woke up. My head was pounding and I was gripped by sense of failure and doom.

It was crazy! Why was I having this dream? My daughter had already had the most beautiful wedding imaginable just last year. And she had planned it all! I hadn’t had to lift a finger. Why would I be worried about her wedding?

Then I had a sudden flash of insight. A whole series of them. One after the other.

Flash of Insight #1

This wasn’t a dream about my daughter’s wedding! It was a dream about my son’s life. About the terrible drug addiction that had ruined the beautiful life we both had dreamed for him. And I blamed myself. I shouldn’t have left something as important as his life up to him! I should have taken charge. I should have planned better. But now everything was ruined and there was nothing I could do about it.

Flash of Insight #2

My daughter’s ruined wedding had only been a dream! There had never been a reason to be so upset and despondent. I could have changed the dream at any point. I could have decorated the church, fixed her hair. I could have insisted to go to a beautiful restaurant. At any point in the dream I could have taken charge and created the perfect wedding. If only I had known I was just dreaming. If only I had realized I had the power to do so.

Flash of Insight #3

Maybe I’m still dreaming! I remember how real the ruined wedding had seemed in my dream. Like it was really happening. Like this was reality. So much so that even when I woke, I couldn’t shake the sense of sadness and failure. Maybe I will wake up and find out that my son’s ruined life, his addiction, was just a dream too. Maybe in “reality,” he’s living the perfect life I’d always wanted for him, just as my daughter had had her perfect wedding.

Maybe I’d wake to find him in his perfect house with his loving wife, surrounded by his beautiful children, happy and healthy. He’d flash me a big grin and put his arms around me and say, “Silly mama. Why so sad? You were just dreaming!”

Flash of Insight #4

Maybe in this current “dream of reality” we can change things. Maybe we have the power to practice a type of lucid-dreaming. The power to wake up enough to know this isn’t real, and to change the dream into something better. It’s possible, right? Isn’t change possible?

Flash of Insight #5

Maybe this is what they call “magical thinking.” What we do when every other avenue of escape from a reality we cannot tolerate is closed to us.

Maybe. But I’m not convinced.

Spirituality and Science

I keep thinking of some talks by Alan Watts about Christian mysticism and Asian philosophy that I listened to not long ago. He talks about the inter-connectivity of the universe and how it has evolved into human consciousness. How the very cells of our bodies and brains are made of star stuff. How we are in some strange way the universe made conscious. “We are the eternal universe,” he tells us. Each of us, individually, is a pinprick perception of the whole, and altogether we are the whole itself.

The Christian mystics and Zen masters and Hindu gurus all seem to tell us this is so. We are sparks of Divinity.

But the stories of science, of quantum physics, and cosmology also include fantastic tales about the nature of reality that seem “magical,” even “mystical.” And the reality science depicts sounds strangely similar to these spiritual teachings.

Think of it! How strange is this: The story of the Big Bang, how creation exploded spontaneously out of empty space, a void. How an infinite number of galaxies are spinning through space, some being swallowed by gigantic black holes. How our own bodies which seen so solid to us are actually composed mostly of empty space. How an infinite number electrons and neutrons spinning are spinning through our cells like tiny galaxies. What could be more fantastical or magical than reality science teaches us! The reality we accept on “faith” because we believe what science has revealed.

Watts tells us that we each are sparks of the divine Creator, living an infinite number of lives over and over. Sometimes we choose easy paths, sometimes difficult ones. Sometimes we just want to see how much we can take, how far we can push ourselves, how bad it can get before we turn ourselves around.

Did my son choose his path? Did I choose mine? Are our night dreams and waking dreams just various stages in the ever-expanding understanding of who we really are? Will we wake to another understanding of reality and realize this life is just a dream within a dream within a dream . . . and each life is just as “real” or as “magical” as the next one?

We once believed the earth was flat and the distant ocean spilled off into nothingness. Later that the sun circled the earth, and we felt smug and special at the center of the universe. Then we woke up.

What more will we come to understand about reality–the universe and ourselves–as the eons unfold?

Wake up, I tell myself, wake up.

I still don’t know if this is “magical thinking,” the desperate hopes of a mother afraid to let go, to face the fact that there may actually be nothing I can do to help my son, to change his life.

Or a faint faraway flash of insight about reality that is yet too radical to be believed by most.

What do you think?