For many years the general population believed that addiction was the consequence of bad people, making bad choices, which resulted in bad things occurring in their life. It was thought that addiction was at least on some level a conscious decision on the part of the addicted individual and their inability to stop using was because they were weak willed and morally defunct. For so long society has wanted to believe that drug addicts were criminals and not victims. Now science is beginning to shine a light and show that this misdirected belief is not true. Thank God it only took 60 years for the general public to finally catch up to what the AMA declared to be a disease. The stigma unfortunately remains regardless of whether or not it is categorized as a disease.
The idea that addiction was a disease and a compulsion was not generally accepted, even though alcoholism, the counterpart to addiction, was classified as such by the American Medical Association in 1956. Most people were still leery of this idea, some even believing that it was wholly untrue and an excuse for addicts, and while their misgivings were understandable, it gave rise to political agendas that greatly damaged the addict and alcoholic over the years.
Such acts as declaring a War on Drugs, or telling addicted people to ‘Just Say No’ resulted in a culture that could not and did not want to understand addiction. It cut off any real dialogue that we could have about addiction in this country and in doing so, it furthered the misconception that only people who were immoral suffered from addiction. It created the notion in many people’s minds that to do heroin or other drugs, you must really be a bad person, and so we turned the addict into a social pariah and locked them away in droves.
Then something happened, well actually a few somethings happened, that caused public perception to change just a bit. One was a greater scientific understanding of the way that addiction affects the mind, and the other was a legal drug, Oxycontin, which caused many ‘normal’ people to become addicted and gave rise to an epidemic of addiction, not seen since crack first made it way onto the streets in the early 80s.
Before going into the new scientific backing for how addiction is not caused by a moral failing, we should take a look at how Oxycontin changed the perception of addiction in this country. To be frank, for quite some time the medical and scientific communities have understood that addiction is not the result of a conscious choice, but as is often in life, the truth is only as strong as people’s opinion of it and so as more and more people fell into the trappings of substance abuse, people began to realize just how powerful addiction can be.
When Oxycontin was first released, it was lauded as being a miracle drug for those suffering from chronic pain. The company behind the drug, Purdue Pharma, said that it wasn’t as addictive as other semi-synthetic opioids and because of this doctors began to prescribe it liberally. By the early 2000s there were millions of prescriptions for the drug floating around and it is around this time that people started to realize how addictive it truly was. People who may have never been introduced to such powerful narcotics found themselves caught in its grips and many, desperate to stave off the horrific withdrawal symptoms, turned to more illicit means to feed their addiction.
From this jumping off the point the opioid epidemic was created and by the time that legislators became wise to what was going on, an entire generation was already off on the path to addiction. The thing about this addiction epidemic is that it affected everyone. It wasn’t just occurring in impoverished areas, away from the media spotlight, but it was happening in suburban America, among the middle class, and because of this many more people learned firsthand what addiction was like.
As people were becoming more acquainted with what addiction was really like and how powerful of a disease it was, scientists were also doing research on the subject, looking into how it affects the brain and body of the addicted individual. In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, after a 4-year study involving more than 80 experts in the field, concluded that addiction was in fact a brain disorder and should not be classified as a behavioral issue. They found that “the disease creates distortions in thinking, feelings and perceptions, which drive people to behave in ways that are not understandable to others around them.” It is this inability to understand the actions of an addict that has caused a great deal of confusion on the part of non-addicted people in the past and having ASAM come out with these findings helped to solidify the idea that addiction is not a choice or moral failing.
The scientific findings on addiction don’t stop there though and there have been a number of brain scans done of people who suffer from addiction that show that their minds are actually altered by the disease of addiction. Parts of the brain that affect rational choice or the pursuit of pleasure are incredibly different in the mind of an addicted individual and while some people believe that this is just the result of learned behavior, when looked at in the context of all of the other evidence available, it is clear that after a certain point using substances is no longer a choice. It is a compulsion that must be acted on and is being driven on by the mind itself.
The finding continue though and this year The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism published a report the found 3 key components shared by most people with alcoholism and addiction. The report found that people who suffered from addiction had a problem with their executive function of their brain, that their incentive salience was different from non-addicted individuals, and that they were more likely to experience negative emotionality. All three of these components point to the fact that addicts are not simply just making immoral choice in their pursuit of addiction, but rather are being compelled to do so by their addiction.
Even though the scientific evidence is substantial there will still be people who cannot understand that addiction is not a moral failing. This can be seen in what is currently going on in the Philippines, where millions of addicts are in danger of being executed or persecuted. Yet, hopefully as we grow in our understanding of addiction and more evidence is presented, people will begin to shed their arcane and misguided belief systems, and learn to show addicts the same compassion they would any other sick person.
Rose Lockinger is a passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.