Over the past few decades, we in the recovery community have heard over and over again that addiction is a disease.
Through continued research, we know that addiction significantly affects the reward systems in our brain and affects the way we think and act towards our family and loved ones. This dysfunction throws us way off course physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually to a degree that leaves us a shell of our true selves.
By viewing addiction as a disease, the stigma that has surrounded addiction for decades has been slowly fading, and many who struggle can get the help they need in order to reclaim their lives.
While the “addiction as disease” concept is widely accepted by those in the addiction treatment community and accepted by those in the media, the $1,000,000 question remains: is addiction really a disease? If not, what kind of definition would make more sense?
Addiction as a Disease: A Short History
Prior to the 1950’s when the ways of thinking about addiction started to change, those who were addicted to drugs and alcohol were seen as sinners and that addiction was both a moral and spiritual failing. For those struggling with addiction during that time in history, you can imagine how they were viewed in the public eye.
Addicts were seen as being less than human and as broken human beings who were uncaring and self-serving. The only way the addict could right the ship was to reconnect with God and follow His will and direction.
With the emergence of the medical model of addiction in the 1950’s, the concept of addiction as a disease took shape. By classifying addiction is the same light as illnesses such as diabetes and cancer, people who struggled with substance abuse were beginning to be seen in a different and more human light.
Sure, being labelled as having a disease wasn’t the best, but it was better than being marginalized and baring the stigma of addiction like a scarlet letter. When the medical model of addiction was embraced, the ways that addiction was viewed and treated grew by leaps and bounds and millions of addicts have found lifelong sobriety and the healing and happiness that come with it.
But, the question remains: is addiction really a disease?
Both Sides of the Argument
In some respects, addiction fits the disease definition in three ways:
1. It can last a lifetime and can be characterized by frequent relapses, cross addiction and a common set of behavioral changes.
2. Genetics can play a role is determining who is at risk to become addicted.
3. There are medications that have been proven effective that can treat drug and alcohol addiction by blocking the rewarding effects of drugs and decreasing drug cravings.
However, for those who may lean towards the other side of the argument regarding if addiction is really a disease. In an article written for Psychology Today, Lance Dodes writes the following:
“In addiction there is no infectious agent (as in tuberculosis), no pathological biological process (as in diabetes), and no biologically degenerative condition (as in Alzheimer’s disease). The only “disease-like” aspect of addiction is that if people do not deal with it, their lives tend to get worse. That’s true of lots of things in life that are not diseases; it doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of the problem.”
So, is addiction really a disease?
While it is true that addiction does not possess the classic hallmarks of a disease in a sense that we can commonly identify, the way that addiction physically and psychologically impacts addicts goes beyond the realms of simple explanation. To its credit, the medical model of addiction has helped us better understand this illness and there have been many advanced in treatment and outcomes.
Like many definitions, however, the addiction as disease definition isn’t perfect, but it is helping set the stage for further exploration and discussion which is crucial in helping us understand and treat addiction in a more effective fashion.