The social stigma associated with individuals who have succumbed to a substance use disorder is rooted in the false belief that these men or women are somehow morally flawed or of weak character. However, whether considering alcohol addiction or any type of substance addiction, it is important to understand that addiction is a disease. No one would ever choose to become a slave to a substance, just as no one would ever choose to develop heart disease or diabetes, for example.
The Definition of Addiction
As scientific findings evolve, experts in the fields of medicine and psychiatry are increasingly able to clarify the underlying pathology of addiction. Professional organizations in these fields have weighed in on the subject of addiction as a disease:
- American Medical Association (AMA). Back in 1956, the AMA published a groundbreaking definition of addiction as a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors contributing to its development.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA). According to the APA, addiction is a chronic disorder that causes alterations in the brain’s reward system, causing cravings and impairment in the ability to regulate the impulse that results in substance use.
- American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). Additionally, ASAM defines addiction as a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, environment, and life experiences.
Types of Addiction
On the face of it you might think that alcohol addiction is distinct and separate from an addiction to a drug, such as cocaine or heroin. Indeed, there are obvious differences between the physical effects or health risks associated with alcohol versus drug addiction. Alcohol addiction may lead to liver disease, heart disease, some forms of cancer, and damage to the immune system. On the other hand, depending on which particular drug is involved, drug addiction may lead to toxicity, overdose, dental decay, collapsed veins or acquiring HIV or hepatitis infections.
Although both will share the general symptoms of addiction, the symptoms of alcoholism versus drug addiction — which differ dramatically depending on the substance — are also quite different:
- Lack of coordination, dizziness, or poor balance
- Experiencing blackouts
- Itching, a sign of liver disease
- Memory problems
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Disrupted sleep
- Sexual dysfunction
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Severe hangovers, need to drink first thing in the morning
- Glassy eyes
- Nodding out, a state of semi-consciousness
- Pinpoint pupils
- Chronic constipation
- Mood swings
- Mental confusion
- Changes in appetite, weight loss or weight gain
- Signs of needle marks, hiding the marks with long sleeves even in hot weather
Even though the overt health effects differ between the two addictions, what alcoholism and drug addiction share in common is their disease characteristics and status. Both of these addictions involve psychoactive substances that alter the consciousness. Both addictions cause changes in brain chemistry with extended use. Regardless of whether alcohol is legal and readily available and many other drugs are illicit or illegal does not change the ultimate outcome, that the root of all substance addictions is a chronic disease of the brain.
Understanding Addiction as a Disease
Once it is understood and accepted that people struggling with addiction are human beings saddled with a disease, it can greatly diminish the stigma that keeps so many from seeking the help they need. An individual who becomes chemically dependent or addicted to a substance as a result of making this lifestyle choice should not be viewed any differently than someone who routinely consumed high fat, processed foods and eventually developed heart disease. Each of these people may have had genetic predispositions that influenced the trajectory their lifestyle choices ultimately took.
As with other chronic diseases, someone with the disease of addiction will need to obtain professional treatment to help them manage it and improve their quality of life. Treatment for addiction entails a multi-faceted approach combining medication, therapy, exercise, and holistic solutions — the same general treatment protocol needed for recovering from heart disease, type-2 diabetes, obesity, COPD, and a host of other diseases. When understanding addiction as a disease you will view the person afflicted as worthy of compassion and support — the same compassion and support offered to those suffering with a medical disease — and that will go a long way toward removing the stigma surrounding substance use disorders.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.