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Understanding Addiction

Addicts are the pariahs of our society. The disease of addiction forces them to do things that are out of character and humiliating. It forces otherwise good people to do things to hurt themselves and their families. It sometimes even forces them to do things that cause them to go to prison or, in extreme cases, die. No one would choose that. But the drive to feed the addiction is stronger than the desire of a starving man to find food. It is far stronger. We would gladly give a starving man a loaf of bread, yet it is a felony for an addict to attempt to self-medicate his disease.


Because of what addicts do while in the throes of their addiction, addicts are filled with guilt and shame. They frequently have lost the affection and respect of loved ones and are frequently incapable of supporting their families. Again, no one would choose to do that. It is thrust upon them by factors outside of their control like genetics or emotional trauma. A large percentage of rape victims become addicts. They did not choose to be raped, nor did they choose to become addicts.


But because addiction is a disease of the brain, it is impossible to use your brain to fix it. Any addiction counselor or addiction specialist will tell you that in most cases it is impossible for the addict to stop using on their own. They have to have help. To humiliate and incarcerate them does nothing but further damage the self-integrity they need to get better, worsening the problem. Shame never cured an addict.


Addiction, like any other disease, needs appropriate medical treatment using sound scientific practices, not amateur conjecture. Many people believe you can punish an addict into recovery. This is simply not the case. Study after study has proven that. Addicts need support to mend the psychological wounds and reestablish a normal life. You would not force someone with a broken leg to walk on it in the false belief that exercising it will make it stronger. First you have to let the broken bone mend, or you will just do more damage. Likewise, in many medical conditions medications are essential for treatment and recovery. Diabetes and high blood pressure frequently need more than just diet modification and exercise to obtain successful outcomes. Also, other diseases of the brain like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and even depression are treated with medications. We are usually excited when science provides us with new medications to treat a lethal condition. Yet when it comes to scientifically proven, successful treatments for addiction, they are received with suspicion and scorn, again due to our prejudices about addiction.


As a society we must get over this prejudice and hatred towards addicts. After all, addiction can hit anyone, from doctors and lawyers to ministers and even heads of state.   We must use scientific evidence upon which to base our treatments, not long held biases and prejudices. The United States has one of the highest addiction and mortality rates in the world, primarily due to our dysfunctional attitudes towards the disease of addiction. We must change that. We must all realize that addiction is a disease, and treat it as such, not treating it as a moral failing for which the addict should be punished.  


Dr. Vance Shaw, MD, FASAM

Board Certified by The American Board of Addiction Medicine


May 2011

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