Addiction or Substance Use Dependence remains one of the most misunderstood and at the same time one of the most prevalent diseases of our times. It is misunderstood because the effects of this disease are overlooked and minimized as loved ones, family members, friends and colleagues deteriorate before our very eyes. This disease which impacts about 9% of the population of our country leaves almost no family immune to its impact. Few other diseases affect so many in our society and yet we commit so few resources toward research and treatment for this chronic disease.
Because this disease impacts nearly 1 out of every 10 individuals in society, no community, no work place and no family has been spared from dealing with persons impacted with this disease. Yet even though the American Medical Association unequivocally pronounced addiction as a disease well over 50 years ago, we continue to vacillate in terms of our willingness to fully understand addiction as a disease. The popular press continues to bombard us with sensational stories of high profile individuals whose lives are being ravaged by this disease, yet the focus of the stories continues to be on their unacceptable behavior and their repeated “embarrassing” antics. Very little reporting focuses on the disease itself or on the treatment which is available and on the lives of those individuals who are managing their disease one day at a time as a result of their treatment.
Over the course of the years, we have learned a number of things about addiction. There is much more to learn and much research remains. However, we do know that:
- Addiction is a disease which effects the body, mind and spirit of an individual,
- Addiction is a disease which has a significant brain component to the disease process itself,
- The brains of addicted individuals are significantly different than the brains of those not addicted,
- This disease is not about will power, it is about a chronic disease which impacts about 9% of the population of this country,
- It is a disease if left untreated, may cause premature death,
- It is a chronic disease in that it can never be cured, only managed much like we manage diabetes, hypertension and other chronic diseases, and
- There is treatment for addiction, and it works!
From the brain research we are learning that the disease of addiction seems to rob those diagnosed with the disease of the ability to experience normal pleasure apart from their use of alcohol or other drugs. Thus persons with this disease do not have the ability to simply make choices about their drinking or use of other drugs, those choices have been taken over for them by the change in brain chemistry. Addiction treatment through the use of newly identified medications and the powerful support of others who are also diagnosed with this disease enables persons to manage their lives and their disease.
Because this disease impacts nearly 1 out of every 10 persons, it also means that it does not impact 9 out of 10 and therein lays the dilemma. Since 9 out of 10 are able to drink “normally” it becomes easy to assume then that the 1 out of 10 must have a character flaw or just lack will power. This assumption is very prevalent in our society and is a contributing factor to why so many persons do not receive help for this disease.
For women, the issue of addressing their addiction has often been a double edged sword. Few treatment professionals and programs have in the past made allowances for child care and other responsibilities which have kept women from seeking treatment for their addiction. Likewise, many treatment programs have been male dominated and have often only served as a barrier to true honesty and transparency.
Recently, however, addiction treatment has embraced gender specific treatment. This has meant that women and women’s issues can be addressed in a trusting and confidential environment. For many this has also meant that they are able to address the abuse issues which so often have co-existed with addiction.
Recognizing addiction and seeking treatment for this disease are the keys to addressing this near epidemic spread of this disease. Refusing to idly stand by and watch persons destroy themselves and those around them is something which is normative for other diseases and which must become commonplace with this disease as well. There are numerous individuals and programs available for individuals, spouses and family members seeking help for this disease. The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers is an association of premier providers of addiction treatment who have aligned themselves together to enable them to offer the best treatment for this disease. For persons seeking help, they are advised to make sure that the program they select is licensed by the state in which it is located and that it is accredited by a national accreditation organization to ensure that constant attention to quality is promoted.
Addiction is a chronic disease which responds to treatment and for which there are numerous avenues available to ensure that the disease can be managed for the rest of the life of the individual diagnosed.