I really appreciate it when people respond to these columns. It’s nice to know that somebody’s on the other end of this keyboard. A few weeks ago I reiterated the fact that addictions to drugs, alcohol or whatever have been falsely classified as ‘diseases,’ thus giving the addict (and those around him or her) an excuse to continue the behavior. A surge in emails affirmed that I was writing what many people are beginning to realize.
Many doctors and mental health professionals also know the truth, but are afraid to say so because of political correctness. Assigning blame is just not nice! When writing here for you, I’ve always tried to choose the truth rather than faking concern for the opinions of others.
Yes, there are some superficial similarities between addiction and an actual illness; mainly that the addict feels he can’t control it in the same way that a person with heart disease or cancer feels he can’t control it. The crucial difference, however, is that heart disease or cancer can only be treated with external intervention. You take a pill or submit to surgery and you hope the cure takes place. Addictive behavior stops only if the addict stops doing it.
Another similarity is that biological illness, if left untreated, will worsen and possibly cause death. Addiction can also worsen, resulting in financial/emotional destruction, and even possibly death. But medical treatment can halt or reverse an illness. Only sustained behavioral change, combined with changes in attitudes and beliefs, can permanently stop an addiction.
In both a medical illness and addiction, you go to the doctor to get a cure. The crucial difference is that a medical doctor can treat your physical illness through surgery, drugs, or some action on his part. The doctor “does” something “to” you. Addiction can stop only through one’s own initiative. At the end of the day, one either continues to drink, use drugs, or engage in otherwise self-destructive behavior — or one doesn’t. Doctors and therapists can guide and support you, or maybe even call the authorities, but no matter what, you are the one who must stop.
Substance addictions and medical illnesses that have nothing to do with addiction can share physical symptoms that require medical treatment. The crucial difference is that the symptoms that result from addiction arise from poor behavioral choices. If a person gets lung cancer, we correctly label it as an illness and treat it medically. We say, “The person got cancer because he smoked three packs a day for forty years.” We don’t say, “The person had the illness of smoking for forty years, and now he has an additional illness of lung cancer.” But while smoking gets a free pass, substance abuse doesn’t.
Authorities don’t hesitate to hold smokers responsible for fouling the air and harming their lungs. But these same politically correct health and governmental authorities consider it unprofessional to even suggest that people can be responsible for their conditions. No wonder so many treatment programs fail!
Another superficial similarity between illnesses arising from addiction and those caused by actual medical problems is that addicts feel desires they wish they did not feel, and believe they can’t control. Similarly, a person with an actual illness feels pain and discomfort that he wishes he did not feel, and wishes he could fix. Of course, the crucial difference is that the addict feels a compulsion to gamble, smoke crack or get drunk day after day, for example, and then acts on that compulsion. He might feel remorse later on, but he makes the choice to engage in the destructive behaviors anyway. Many, in fact, do exercise the option to not act on the compulsion. The back pain sufferer or cancer patient can attempt medical procedures that may or may not help, but he or she doesn’t have the power to resolve the problem by making different choices.
Sadly, people buy into the political correctness and wait for medical solutions for their addictions — at their own peril and that of their loved ones. If there’s a behavioral pattern you really want to change, only you can change it. Stop waiting for the promise of a fix that will never happen.