Addiction: A Moral Failure Or A Disease

How is Chemical Addiction Diagnosed?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, one meets criteria for a substance use disorder when they have an increased need for substances and fail to cut down, despite negative consequences. These consequences include damaged relationships, decreased performance at work or school, and increased psychological problems.

How Should We View Addiction?

The world has seen the effects of addiction since the beginning of civilization, and there are common arguments with regard to the roots of the chaos. Some think that addicts and alcoholics are simply chronic failures or moral defectives. Yet, they fail to see the true nature of the problem. Many of us in society are hippie scholars, only getting a few tidbits of knowledge from magazines or media sources, forming flawed understandings of important issues. I believe that the government’s “war on drugs” emerged due to a misunderstanding of the true nature of addiction, namely, that it is a disease. Rather than target the supply, it might have been more effective to target the demand. However, this is a subject of an entirely different discussion.


Most addicts and alcoholics that I meet exhibit debilitating shame, guilt, and feelings of worthlessness. They tell me all sorts of horrific stories, and believe that they’re terrible people. My most common response is, “If you were a terrible person, you wouldn’t feel immense shame, guilt and remorse. The very fact that you feel psychological stress means that your behaviors are not congruent with you.” Addict behavior has long been stigmatized through a lens of morality when, in reality, addicts are no longer capable of choice.



What Causes Addiction?

Simply put, addiction is remembered success- that is, how to feel better. Many children touch something hot as a child and get burnt. That memory is so powerful that they no longer need to think about avoiding extreme heat, they just do. The mind has a powerful memory because of the very severe consequence of their action. The same is true with addicts: they use, and then they feel better. Often, in using, they are lifted from the very depths of despair, and the brain records that experience. The scary part of the whole thing is, once learned, it cannot be unlearned. Just as you can’t unlearn riding a bicycle, or unlearn the consequence of a hot element after a burn, an addict can’t unlearn how to feel better after trying a substance that greatly complements their brain chemistry.


To further complicate things, it isn’t the frontal cortex, the advanced part of the mind that is responsible for making rational decisions, that records the experience. Rather, it’s the limbic system. That means that whenever the addict is feeling stress, or any other sort of discomfort, the brain’s automatic response is, “use the substance and feel better.” The sad news is that the rational decision-making part of the brain, the frontal cortex, can’t outthink the limbic system.


Conclusion- Addiction is a Bio-Psycho-Social Disease and Requires Holistic Treatment

Science has shown that addiction is, in fact, a brain disease, specifically affecting the pleasure center and also the part of the brain that controls choice, thereby hijacking the suffering person. People who are ill with this disease cannot expect to heal without intense holistic treatment. It often takes multiple attempts to achieve remission, but with the right supports, it is possible.


What are your thoughts? Do you have any personal experience with addiction? Please share your comments and questions below.

Andrew Waters

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