The Addiction Disease Theory Created the Addiction Epidemic
What if the current thinking on addiction is all wrong? What if addiction treatment and the currently accepted ideas about addiction are actually making the problem worse? Think about it for a moment. There are more treatment programs today than at any point in history, with new ones opening every day in this country. There is more funding being allocated at federal, state, and local government levels to combat addiction. Health insurance law now makes it mandatory for insurance to cover addiction treatment and, as it’s mandatory to purchase health insurance, more people are insured today than have been previously. So why, is the drug problem growing at such an alarming rate? Why are rates of opiate abuse, drug overdose, and death from substance use going up? And, more puzzling still, why are these rates highest among people that actually do receive treatment?
It’s important to understand the effects of a well-entrenched theoretical paradigm in order to fully begin to grasp what is happening in our society. The addiction disease paradigm has been slowly growing and building in this country since our Founding Fathers penned the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. Back then, intoxication was seen as sinful, and even moderate use of alcohol was believed to allow evil spirits to enter your body, thus the term “spirits” for alcohol. The addiction disease theory began as an explanation for what was seen as moral failings on the part of the individual. Those who liked intoxication were viewed as having poor moral character and were often shunned.
During the 1800’s and early 1900’s, people that had a strong preference for intoxication were seen as mentally ill, often were locked away in mental institutions, and were sometimes subjected to barbaric and bizarre treatments. These treatments attempted to make these individuals change their preference and stop liking intoxication. Certainly, none of the treatments worked or they would still be used today.
During the early 1930’s, right after the Great Depression, a down on his luck traveling salesman named Bill Wilson was drinking heavily. He began to believe that he was an alcoholic and, if he kept drinking, he would die. He may have been right about that. Alcohol is a poison that damages many organs in the body when used at high levels on a consistent basis. A man he knew approached him and took him through a Christian conversion of sorts, telling him the only cure for his alcoholism was God. The man told Bill that God was the key for him to overcome his moral weakness and defects of character that led him to drink so heavily. Thus, the movement of Alcoholics Anonymous was born, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the decades that followed, the term “alcoholism” became fashionable and accepted, but it also began taking on a confusing and contradictory meaning. Is alcoholism a spiritual malady that must be treated with faith in God? Is it a genetic disorder? Is it a brain disease that needs to be treated with medication? Is it the result of character defects? Is it an allergy?
Billions of dollars have been spent researching problematic drinking and drug use. There are multiple government agencies whose sole purpose is to define and solve the public health problem known as addiction. These agencies exist at all levels of government. Sadly, even though all research data has contradicted the brain disease model, those operating within the now multi-billion dollar addiction disease paradigm have made sure to interpret research findings to fit within their theories. Now the preferred treatment for addiction is a bizarre combination of pharmaceuticals, therapies, and faith healing. This theoretical paradigm stays alive and well, in spite of the lack of science backing it.
There was a time when scientists believed the earth was flat, eating fatty foods caused heart disease, and that the human brain was fixed and unchangeable by a certain age. All of these paradigms are now disproven, but all were slow to change, even though the data was overwhelming that they were wrong. The same is now true of addiction. Sadly, until it changes, many people will continue to die needlessly, believing they are defective, immoral, sick, and unable to control their behavior.
Since the beginning of time, people have ingested substances to alter their reality. Some do it often because they find that they like it. Many that engage in substance use regularly develop a strong preference for it. They see being high or intoxicated as providing them some benefits. They see it as making their life happier or better in some way. Sometimes people develop belief systems around substances that aren’t entirely accurate but, to them, they are good reasons for use. For example, some people may believe that drinking alcohol relieves stress, or that it is the best way to relax or make them more sociable. Others believe using heroin is the best way for them to deal with emotional pain from trauma. There are people who believe that using cocaine makes them smarter, or that using cocaine or smoking meth is the best way for them to have a good time with friends.
Addiction treatment and the brain disease model does absolutely nothing to address people’s well thought out reasons for preferring substances, and, in fact, denies those reasons completely. It denies the very notion that people have a preference for intoxication. Instead, addiction treatment uses shame, guilt, and fear to force people into saying, and, in some cases, believing that they don’t like drinking or drug using and, as a result, they don’t know why they are doing it.
Even if you are not -and have never been- a substance user, I want you to think of an activity you enjoy and do or have done regularly that others may not understand. Perhaps you feel judged and don’t talk about it or admit it because you feel ashamed that you like it. Maybe you binge watch movies all weekend, play video games, or really love cats and have a lot of them. You might work very long hours because you love your job, or love the money you make from working such long hours. Perhaps you are an avid reader spending hours alone in your room engrossed in your books or you work out for several hours per day. Maybe you’re a vegan or you’re a true carnivore and eat meat with every meal.
There are all kinds of behaviors that others look at and judge to be wrong, immoral, or problematic. But, the fact is, we engage in those behaviors because we believe that they provide some benefit to us. We engage in them because we find some happiness doing it; because we’ve developed a preference for it. And then, somewhere down the road, that preference may change. Sometimes that change is because we’ve actively sought to change it, and sometimes our preferences simply change as our likes and priorities adjust as we age.
The key to overcoming addiction is simple: it is to change your preference. Even those few that find some success in AA, or other 12 Step groups, stay abstinent because they come to believe they can be happier without alcohol or drugs. For most, however, that belief of the possibility of change only remains for a brief time. The belief that addiction is a progressive, incurable brain disease that renders them forever powerless is always there. They make the choice not to use for a brief time and then succumb to the stronger belief being fed to them in meetings and therapy that they are flawed and weak. When you combine that idea of being forever sick with the belief in the powerful allure of alcohol and drugs, their preference for substance use may remain intact for years because it was never directly addressed or even acknowledged. When substance users go back to using, as most do, after going to treatment or entering 12 Step groups, it’s seen as a relapse into a diseased state, rather than a completely voluntary behavior based their intact preference for intoxication.
What you don’t know is that most people (90%) simply stop their addictions and problematic substance use on their own. Most do so with no treatment whatsoever. Those people simply change their preference and move on with their lives. Once exposed to treatment, support groups, and the brain disease model of addiction, a needless, lifelong struggle begins, and far too often, it ends with an untimely death.
Addiction is not a disease and teaching people it is, through treatment, education, and propaganda, is literally creating an addiction epidemic. Prohibition of substance use is based on erroneous information about the alluring power of drugs and has created a black market that leads to death and destruction, just as it did with alcohol a century ago. The key to solving our public health crisis is to abandon the current accepted but flawed, disproven paradigm and look at the actual science. No one is controlled by drugs or alcohol. All people have the power to change their preferences and behaviors. They just need the right information.