Drug Abuse: Disease or Choice?

Official organizations such as the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse call drug abuse a disease, and there is some evidence to support this. A researcher at Harvard University exposed fish in a tank to cocaine. The fish seemed to become addicted to it, didn’t want to leave the immediate area, and even lingered after he removed the drug. When he tried the same thing with a fish family that had one altered gene, they were not tempted. Therefore, he sees the issue as genetic, which supports the disease concept. But is it really that straightforward?

Lifestyle determines likelihood of abuse

Canadian researchers have shown that social environment is crucial. Rats who lived in cages selected morphine when presented with a choice between the drug and water. But rats in better living conditions chose the water. And in an American experiment, monkeys who had inferior social positions and were bullied by dominant ones chose to take cocaine regularly. The dominant ones were not as interested in it. If animals choose to take drugs in order to escape their social situations, then wouldn’t people do the same? Dr. Michael Nader, who ran the monkey experiment, says the answer is yes, at least for people who feel disempowered in their jobs.

Other reasons for abuse are mental and spiritual

Dr. Marc Lewis, an author, neuroscientist and former addict, thinks addiction is simply a very bad habit. It is connected to stress, he believes, though not necessarily caused by it. It’s also caused by the need for short-term pleasure and the anticipation of the pleasure that addicts feel before they indulge. There’s a spiritual component too: Native Canadians who felt their lives were meaningless and could not see their place in the world became addicts.

Meditation as healing

Lewis uses the example of a recovered addict to argue against the disease theory. The woman learned to associate drug use with feelings of peace and relaxation, yet her addiction destroyed her life and put her in jail. She changed by taking up meditation, and, to paraphrase Lewis, “rerouting her desire” for the drug and its effects so that it was channeled toward taking control of herself in a positive way.

Lewis thinks that trying to suppress the need for a drug is not healthy because it creates a sense of fatigue within yourself – you are fighting against your own desires. However, this “Just Say No” approach was heavily promoted in 1980s America and still exists today.

Questioning the treatment industry

He also sees the connection between classifying addiction as a disease and the growth of the multi-billion-dollar addiction-treatment industry. If its goals were successful, it would no longer have a reason to exist, he notes.

Former soldiers kicked addictions on their own

The idea that addiction is a disease we have no control over, and it can only be healed by an external force, is seriously challenged by studies of those who have recovered. Americans soldiers in Vietnam often became drug addicts, but a very high percentage learned to quit after the fighting stopped. ABC News gives the figure as 88%, while the New York Post says 75% of the soldiers on heroin quit once they were back in the U.S.

A balanced view on recovery

If we analyze the different views and research on addiction, we can produce a reasonable position that helps addicts to recover in the most positive way. First, the extreme position that addiction is only a disease does not seem helpful. The Post article shows how Alcoholics Anonymous can be considered a type of religion in which total adherence to its rules is demanded. AA, of course, sees alcohol addiction as a disease that we are powerless to resist. But Dr. Lewis states that most addicts see empowerment as a key to their recovery.

Further, there may be a genetic component to whether we become addicted, but that does not mean willpower is overridden. It seems likely that a combination of genes and a negative environment or situation leads to a greater chance of addiction. But people still have to choose to abuse, and they’re probably always aware of what they’re doing.

The most important idea to remember is that if you choose to do it, then you can choose to stop, or at least guide your impulses into healthy outlets, as Dr. Lewis promotes. And while you may be leery of counselling and advice, remember that qualified professionals who work in a supportive environment can and often do help people tremendously. Rehab centers that lack the right staff can cause complications, though. Also, when you’re detoxing, you really do need the right medical supervision. And don’t forget that going cold turkey is dangerous – while many soldiers may have quit on their own, some likely suffered in the process if they didn’t follow a proper routine.

Finally, focus on giving yourself power. Meditate. Commune with nature and animals. Connect with positive people. Take regular action to benefit yourself and the world. See yourself as being part of a positive story that has a happy ending. Eventually, the addiction may wither away – it just has no reason to exist. All that positive energy has healed it!

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