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The Disease Aspect of Addiction and Alcoholism, Part One

For a long time I fought against the concept that addiction was a disease. In my mind it was a choice, and although I had compassion for the addict, I also blamed them for getting themselves into this mess in the first place. The American Medical Association included alcoholism and addiction as a disease in the 1950’s. The criteria fits, but many still view it as a moral weakness.

AMA’s criteria of a disease:
Primary: The illness exists in and of itself. (But may manifest in addition to other illnesses.) Chronic: Does not go away, heal spontaneously or remit.
Progressive: Over time it gets worse.
Symptomatic: Can be diagnosed by the way it manifests in a person’s physiology, behavior and lifestyle. Fatal: If left untreated will result in death.
Treatable: Proven medication, therapies, and lifestyle changes do result in the ability to live without the abused substance.

There are several reasons it’s helpful to accept addiction/alcoholism as a disease. Addiction is a “family disease” that touches everyone closely involved with the addict. Side effects include worry, heartbreak, financial drain, fear, anger, guilt and sometimes physical harm. And like it or not, we have to deal with these upsetting side effects one way or another. Accepting addiction/alcoholism as a disease takes the blame off everyone. When viewed as a disease, it takes some of the emotional turmoil out of the equation which allows us to be able to be more realistic and less frustrated.

Here are a few more reasons it’s helpful to recognize addiction/alcoholism as a disease:
– Doctors and scientists will continue to study it and hopefully someday find a cure.

– People in general will have more compassion and less judgment of addicts.

– Loved ones will be better able to do what’s best for the addict if they grasp what’s going on physically as well as mentally and emotionally.

– Addicts themselves will perhaps be less hard on themselves. Many think of themselves as “losers: because they want to stop but can’t.
– Parents of addicts will stop blaming themselves and accept that there is nothing they could have done differently to prevent the outcome.
– Our government will continue to treat it as a disease and hopefully get more serious about implementing some changes (don’t get me started on the war on drugs!).
– The stigma against addicts will lessen. Unfortunately, announcing that your wife, son, best friend is struggling with addiction/alcoholism receives a much different response that if you were to announce they had cancer or another life threatening illness.


In “Part Two” I’ll do my best to explain in simple terms how this disease affects the addict/alcoholic physically. They say knowledge is power and for me personally, I am handling my son’s addiction much better as I learn more about it. I hope I can shed some light on it for others as well.

Barbara Legere writes about Heroin Addiction on her award winning Recovery Happens blog. Her son Keven has been struggling with his heroin addiction for over 3 years. Join Barbara on her blog or Twitter.