Addiction Is a Disease, Not a Disgrace

by Sandy Swenson
May 22, 2019

Addiction is a misunderstood tragedy, too often hushed up. Too often hidden away due to shame, guilt, or fear of blame. Too often, addiction is a battle faced while all alone and afraid—both by those consumed by the disease and by the people who love them. A powerful trio, shame, guilt, and blame help the disease of addiction to do what it does best—spread misery and destruction through the hearts and lives of individuals, families, and communities, shredding dreams and generations to come. We don’t need to look very far to see someone affected by addiction in one way or another—a child, a parent, or a sibling; a neighbor, a co-worker, a friend; a reflection in the mirror. There’s just no room in this crowd for stigma and silence. It’s time to step out of the shadows with our heads held high and face this disease head on—as with any other disease—so healing can truly begin, for everyone the disease of addiction touches. Which, in truth, is all of us.

Addiction is a disease, not a disgrace. Not an excuse. A complex, chronic, and medically accepted disease, addiction changes the brain’s structure and functioning. Addiction happens when substance use crosses an invisible line between want and need—between pleasure and compulsion—and it can happen to anyone who has ever taken a sip, a snort, or even a pill prescribed for pain. Why someone starts and why they can’t stop are two different things.

Most addiction begins in adolescence—when our children are children—before the brain is fully developed. Under the influence of peer pressure, insecurity, immaturity, doctor’s orders and/or popular culture, our children too often become shackled forevermore to a disease that began with one reckless choice. As with other diseases, a diagnosis of addiction requires adherence to a treatment plan, and recovery is possible—but too often this disease is left hidden away in dark corners, free to grow and ravage its hosts: our children. Our future generations.

Addiction is not a choice. It is not a moral failing or a lack of willpower. Instead, it is the result of a random compilation of genetics, personality, and circumstance—much the same as with heart disease, diabetes, and cancer—and so, not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol becomes addicted. A person may choose to use—just as they may choose to eat cookies or sit around on the sofa—but there’s no predicting whom Lady Unlucky will pluck from the crowd of millions engaging in the exact same behaviors. No one chooses to become caught up in addiction’s noose.

Addiction will be treated like a disease once it is understood as a disease―but this is an understanding that will happen only when those of us who love an addict stop hiding addiction as though it’s a disgrace. We—you and me—have the power to change the way addiction is perceived. The power to change the way addiction is believed. The power to change the way in which our beloved addicts are judged and treated—and the power to change the way they judge and treat themselves.

There is ZERO shame in addiction. Zero. But in recognizing how hard it is even for those of us on the front lines to understand this (if it were easy, so many of us wouldn’t still be in hiding), it becomes clear how hard it is for everyone else to understand this. If we can’t demonstrate our belief that addiction is a disease—if we continue on with our secrets and cover-ups, averted eyes and heads hung in shame—how will the world ever come to accept addiction as a disease and treat it like one?

We are the models whose lead; the others will follow. We hold the key to addiction’s tomorrow.

Once we are secure in our understanding that addiction is a disease as tragic as any other life-threatening disease—and no more scandalous—we can move forward. One by one, and one after another, those of us who love someone with the disease of addiction can begin scattering seeds of truth and understanding about the place where addiction meets love and life . . . each one of us with the potential to reach, to touch, so many.

No more secrets—not anymore. It’s time to trade shame and blame for strength. It’s time to embrace our place as warriors on the front lines and do battle with the disease of addiction and its stigma. It’s time to change the dynamics of the place where love and addiction meet.

If not us, who?

If not now, when?

Sandy Swenson

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Dandelion STRONG

“We may often feel fragile, but we are strong. And we are many.
We have the power to overpower the destruction that addiction spreads.”

Sandra Swenson is the author of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction (Central Recovery Press 2014), Tending Dandelions: Honest Meditations for Mothers with Addicted Children (Hazelden 2017), the Readings for Moms of Addicts app (Hazelden 2018), and her blog.

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