PSA to The Odyssey: Drug addiction is way more complicated than you think

A former addict and recovery organization founder explains why

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A recent article on The Odyssey “Stop Calling Your Drug Addiction A Disease” bizarrely defended the backwards view that drug addicts don’t deserve your sympathy.

The author writes she is “infuriated” by addicts who “blame their disease on a choice that they brought on themselves.”

“That child in the cancer ward didn’t choose to do something that brought on their cancer,” she says. “That woman with cystic fibrosis didn’t do something to bring it upon herself.”

It looks mostly like this:

She goes on:

“Could you really look a child, stricken with cancer, in the eyes and tell them you also have a disease, that you’re also sick, but that unlike them, you made choices that led you to where you are, while they didn’t? Take some personal responsibility and own up to it, but don’t you dare go around telling people you have this so called disease that YOU created.”

As anyone with expertise in or experience of addiction will tell you, that’s a very outdated opinion. It predates all modern thinking on how to treat addicts, says Daniel Regan, the founder and director of CFC Loud N Clear, a non-profit recovery organization. A former addict himself, he explained why The Odyssey’s take on this is way more complicated than they think.

Hey Daniel, what do you think about addiction being a disease?

There’s mixed reviews with the disease model when it comes to addiction. There’s the 12 Step base, which is where this whole disease model took place, because of the stigma surrounding addiction. Back in the 20s and 30s, as an addict, you’d be sent to a poorhouse – that’s where they also sent the mentally ill and people who couldn’t pay their bills. They lived in horrible conditions and weren’t treated at all. So to start breaking down the stigma of alcoholism and drug addiction – back then, addicts were accused of being morally bankrupt – people began to treat addicts on a medical basis.

When it was made, the 12 Step program called addiction a disease, and helped addicts find spiritual sanity. That disease model has helped people come to the realization that addiction and alcoholism were medical issues that needed to be treated as such. It’s really helped people – insurance companies pay for treatment and it’s made the federal government treat addicts not as criminals but as patients. It’s helped transform people’s lives.

What do you think about the comparison between addiction and disease?

I do think it’s outdated. I don’t like comparing addiction to cancer and stuff like that. I don’t think it’s fair to people who have cancer. But we have to be careful – it’s a tight rope we have to follow. It’s because of the medical need, the medical necessity of addiction and mental health. We can’t take away that medical term. I think we can describe it as something better than a disease. I think the disease model gives addicts a lot of excuses to continue their behavior.

And how has the disease/addiction view changed over the years?

With my program, I don’t do the 12 Steps. I do smart recovery. I don’t believe addiction is a disease – that sounds like it’s incurable. I feel that when you say something’s incurable, that’s very negative. If I was to describe what addiction is, I’d call it an infection. Because you can cure an infection. I believe there should be some sort of medical basis to describing addiction, because that’s what gets people help. You can’t just say: “You’re a screwed-up case, you’re broken, you’re a menace to society, you have no morals and that’s why you do the things you do.” And that’s not true.

I’ve always been a good person, I’ve always been cautious, I’ve always been empathetic. But I found myself in a rut because the chemicals of the drug were in my body, it chemically changed who I was. And I needed medical assistance to get my mind back. Talk therapy, detox medication.

In terms of infection, I chose to do an activity that caused injury to myself. I had a wound, and then I made the choice not to take care of that wound. I let it fester. And it get infection. That infection grew worse and worse and worse and then eventually I hit rock bottom where, effectively, I had to amputate my arm because the infection became too much. I had to clean the wound out. It was up to me and it was my choice to keep tending to that wound and make sure it heals thoroughly. And eventually, all that would be left is a scar, as long as I keep on the same path as that treatment. I would describe addiction as an infection. It starts off with a choice that you feel is harmless. You end up getting injured or addicted, and you keep partaking in this activity and not taking care of the wound. And it grows into an issue. But ultimately, it can be cured.

Conversation has been edited for clarity and length.