We have eradicated many of what used to be fatal diseases and also increased our life expectancy to the highest it has ever been. Yet, we are in the midst of a significant global health crisis, which does not align with our incredible medical advances.
We all recognize heart disease as one of the major killers of our species. But do you know which disease wrecks more lives than heart disease and cancer combined? Addiction!
Perhaps you think that this problem does not impact you. After all, you are neither a homeless, opioid addict nor a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
In this article, I invite you to reconsider.
Recovery from addiction is a daunting challenge for the individual, family, and for our society. But if we unmask the real problems of addiction, perhaps we can come up with more effective solutions for recovery.
Although I am not an addiction professional, eliminating obstacles to recovery from addiction is a personal mission for me. This mission began when I was sixteen and lost a loved one to a drug overdose.
For the last thirty years, I have been a committed advocate of addiction recovery. I began this work in college when I volunteered at the “Council for drug problems”. And today, a big part of my work as a Integrative Wellness coach and speaker involves providing addiction professionals with effective tools against compassion fatigue and burnout.
The privilege of working with these incredible individuals has taught me much about what the real problem with addiction is. I have also learned what it means to rise like the phoenix from the ashes and begin a new life.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
This proverb of the three wise monkeys seems to encapsulate pretty well our problems with addiction. Our lack of moral responsibility and our choice to look the other way on this very solvable problem, may be the most lethal component of this issue.
See No Evil: We don’t see addiction for what it really is
We often view addiction as a weakness, character flaw, or a punishable crime. However, addiction is a disease, which involves well-substantiated alterations of our brain’s structures and functions. Science informs us that the disease of addiction is a “brain disorder that is characterized by engagement in rewarding stimuli despite the adverse consequences.”
Regardless of our personal history, our common biology propels us to act in ways that get us closer to pleasure and away from pain. If we experienced events in our early life that disrupted the proper development of certain parts of our brain, we may be prone to turn to a substance for relief from pain. (Emotional, or physical.)
But we don’t have to be an opioid addict to suffer from this affliction.
Many of us turn to perfectly legal activities to activate the reward center of our brain despite their adverse consequences. These may include alcohol, work, shopping, video games, social media, or something as simple as food.
Addiction is a treatable disease, but we have to see it for what it is for effective recovery to occur.
Hear No Evil: Stigma and shame.
Here is how Stigma shows up as a problem with addiction. Historically, instead of joining hands to create paths to recovery for our fellow humans who struggle with addiction, we have cast them out and punished them. We throw people who are not well into the criminal justice system and make it impossible for them to get well or return to a healthy, productive reality.
Can you imagine punishing a fellow human being for having hypertension, diabetes,or obesity? Sixty-seven percent of us struggle with weight issues or obesity. How would putting us away solve this problem?
Speak No Evil: Fear makes addiction a silent killer.
Of the twenty million Americans who are struggling with substance misuse, only 10% seek treatment.
The shame and stigma of addiction drive us to suffer alone and prevent us from seeking help. We are afraid to come forth into the light because of fear of the consequences. Thus, we are deprived of the possibility of treatment and recovery. The problem with hiding our issues with addiction is that it cuts off our lifeline to solutions.
Many people around us struggle with addiction, but we will never know if we don’t speak about it. By hiding our struggles and not celebrating our stories of recovery, we deprive one another of the support and resources to recover. Our hearts have been closed for so long because of our fear of being judged and losing connection.We can gain the relief we need through meaningful connection and kinship with others who perhaps suffer too. But this solution is hi-jacked by our fear.
The unknown is a significant risk factor for our health,as is social isolation. It is not too late to take an active stance and break the silence of addiction.
If you personally are suffering in silence, know that you are not alone!
Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This is a free and confidential treatment, referral,and information services line open 24 hours/7 days a week.The service is operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Almost half a century ago, a Professor of psychology named Bruce Alexander came across a compelling discovery in a now famous addiction experiment that he called “Rat Park”.
He found that we do not become addicted to activities that have adverse consequences because we are flawed. We engage in addictive behaviors because we do not have access to healthy ways to overcome the challenges of modern life. These healthy ways include connection to others and a sense of belonging.
The rats in the Rat Park experiment that lived in a housing colony, rather than in an isolated cage, were more resistant to addiction. When we have a solid sense of belonging (much like the rats in the Rat Park experiment), we have a positive way to stay closer to pleasure and further away from pain. We are able to do this without the adverse consequences of addictive substitutes.
I don’t mean to overlook the differences that the contributions of our individual histories of vulnerability, genetic make-ups and environments have on the problem of addiction.
I also do not intend to down-play the unique experiences and challenges that different forms of addiction present to our fellow human beings.
But I do agree with Professor Alexanderon the following point.
Our problem with addiction is much more of a social problem than it is an individual disorder.
We need to replace discrimination with compassion, punishment with compassionate care, and fear with early-addiction education and harm-reduction efforts. When we do this, then we may have the opportunity to solve the problem of addiction.
And we can then begin to end our global health crisis.