According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 23.5 million Americans are addicts. This means that roughly one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12 is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Though this is surprising, what is truly astonishing is that addiction remains one of the most stigmatized words that we encounter in our daily lives. How can so many people be affected by this and yet so many others remain ignorant of the realities associated with it? Society purports to know what an addict looks like and how they behave but in truth, these are nearly impossible to define. With so much uncertainty surrounding addiction (its cause, its effects, and its treatment) I want to separate fact from myth in what I call The 5 Truths of Addiction in the hope that I can shed some light on this dark affliction.
Truth #1: Addiction starts as a CHOICE; but it becomes a COMPULSION:
Do not get stuck on the first half of this truth. Often alcoholics/addicts are asked “What is your drug of choice?” A common sign of a person crossing over from “Abuse” or mild use to “Addiction” or moderate to severe use is when there is no preferred choice, just a need to use something. Meaning if the “drug of choice” is not available an addict will use whatever is to satisfy their need to use. For the addict, using alcohol/drugs becomes a physiological compulsion. It was once believe that addiction was a learned behavior and therefore could be “unlearned.” This theory has been proven to be untrue. Research shows that even after five, ten, or even more years of sobriety, alcoholics/addicts who start using again usually return in a short period of time to the level of use at which they initially quit. Research has found the addiction will often embed itself in the Limbic region of the brain. This region controls instinctual and pre-cognitive functions. It controls our basic survival functions like: fight, flight, or freeze responses. This part also controls our basic human need to eat, drink, and reproduce. When addiction takes control of the Limbic region, a person’s need to use could surpass their need to eat, drink, and/or have sex. Addiction is so strong it can override a person’s basic need for safety in order to get or use alcohol/drugs. The only choice in addiction is whether or not to initially do the drugs. How the body reacts to the drugs is out of a person’s control.
Truth #2: Addiction begins as a PLEASURABLE experience but becomes a PAINFUL experience.
Addiction generally beings as a happy and exciting experience. It starts out as fun, an experience to satisfy a curiosity, or maybe an attempt to fit in with a certain group. According to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, in 2015, 87% of Americans over the age of 12 had drank alcohol in their lifetime and approximately 49% had used an illicit drug. However, only 5.7% meet the criteria for alcohol dependency only, 1.7% for drug dependent only, and 1.1% both alcohol and drug dependent. Addiction is a progressive disease. What starts out a fun and enjoyable; turns burdensome and painful. Eventually, addiction will take priority over EVERYTHING. People will say other things matter (and they may) but when it comes down to it, actions will prove that drugs/alcohol will always come first. Since addiction becomes a primary disease, not just a symptom of another disease, it begins to affect all aspects of the addict’s life. The addict will begin to experience things like physical illness, family issues, unresolved grief issues, trouble at work and school, and depression. These problems cannot be resolved effectively until the substance use stops. Addiction must be treated first
Truth #3: Addiction is a CHRONIC disease
A chronic disease is a health condition that is persistent and/or resistant to treatment, otherwise long-lasting in its effects, or a disease that develops over time (progressive). Chronic diseases last longer than 3 months and are generally preventable because they are initially the result of a choice. Once a person is addicted to drugs/alcohol the symptoms of the disease become chronic. This means a person can never safely use mood-altering substances again. In this respect, addiction is similar to diabetes, another chronic disease. Most people eat sugar, but due to genetic reasons and excessive consumption of sugar some people can develop type 2 diabetes. The continued intake of sugar and lack of change in lifestyle can cause the Type 2 diabetic to become a Type 1 diabetic, meaning they can never safely ingest sugar (without medical intervention) again. In both cases, the victim can have a healthy, happy, productive life as long as they accept the need for abstinence. Addiction is a lifelong; permanent disease. It never goes away. That is why people who get help and quit are often referred to as “recovering” not “recovered.” For alcoholics and addicts that means they use no mood-altering chemicals. “The disease is called ‘alcoholism’ not ‘alcoholwasm’!”
Truth #4: Addiction is a CAUSTIC disease.
It is a disease that will poison every aspect of an individual’s life. Addiction has the ability to destroy and ultimately kill an individual physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Addiction leads to the destruction of individuals, relationships, and society as a whole. A chemically dependent person usually dies prematurely if he or she continues to use alcohol and/or drugs. The average life span for an alcoholic is 10 to 12 years shorter than that of a non-alcoholic. Drunk driving is a leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. The three most popular places for teens to abuse alcohol/drugs are at their own home, the home of a friends, and in parked cars. Our country is currently facing an opioid epidemic, which has quickly taken its spot as a leading preventable cause of death. In 2015, the United States accounted for 25% of the over-dose related deaths in the world. Kentucky alone had 1404 overdose deaths, making it the 8th leading cause of death in the state.
Truth #5 (My personal favorite): Addiction is not a CURABLE disease, but a TREATABLE disease.
This is my favorite because there is hope for the suffering addict. There is no cure for addiction. It can only be arrested and effectively treated—like many other chronic diseases. It is estimated that 40-60 percent of those who complete treatment are successful at remaining clean and sober. These percentages are comparable to other diseases such as: high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Addiction feels like a hopeless disease, like there’s no future, but it’s not. Alcoholics anonymous says you only need to be three things to change—Honest, Open-minded, and Willing (The HOW of sober living).