Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, is a disease. The Fireside Post has many articles on addiction. We should be clear that we are talking about a pandemic disease. Here are some sticking points – is addiction self induced? Is addiction merely criminal behavior? Is addiction a moral dilemma – a sin of Biblical proportions? The answer to all of these questions is NO.
Dr. David Ohlms of Hyland Center in St. Louis, a part of St. Anthony’s Medical Center, is most descriptive about disease. I will have to paraphrase:
Addiction is a chronic, progressive, incurable, and sometimes fatal disease. By definition, a disease is something that causes human problems, has identifiable symptoms, and has identifiable treatments.
This could be said of heart disease or diabetes or arthritis. Chronic diseases are ongoing and require lifestyle changes to manage. Acute diseases like the flu have short durations – they generally do not last through out a lifetime.
Many acute and chronic illnesses are exacerbated by life style. During flu season, limit your contact with others and practice very good hygiene. If a person gets the flu society generally does not say, “Well, they should have washed their hands.” If a person has heart disease or diabetes they find consolation and support with family, friends, and employers.
Heart disease and diabetes have identifiable symptoms. Heart disease might be identified with checks on blood pressure, cholesterol, and simple EKG’s. If a person walks in the doctor’s office and says, I am often tired, I am thirsty, and I have to urinate often – any good doctor will immediately order blood and urine tests for diabetes.
Heart disease and diabetes have identifiable treatments. Many of these treatments are centered on lifestyle changes. Quit smoking, eat a balanced diet, exercise. The diabetic can no longer stop at the Dairy Queen on Sunday afternoon for a hot fudge sundae. The person with heart disease has to stop the bacon, eggs, and fried potatoes for breakfast.
Addiction is exactly like heart disease or diabetes. Identifiable symptoms, and identifiable lifestyle changes to treat the illness. No more sitting in the sports bar on Sunday afternoon watching your favorite team in the playoffs.
A friend of mine had a heart attack at age 64, his first outward indication that anything was wrong. He did his two weeks as an inpatient, then three months in the Outpatient Cardiac Center, learning about lifestyle changes. They taught him to exercise, how to cook without fat or frying, and how to meditate and relax. In six months he had lost thirty pounds and was feeling well. He attended a family reunion picnic and everyone commented on how well he looked. The picnic menu included cheeseburgers, polish sausage, ribs, french fries, potato chips, apple and cherry pies, cakes, and plenty of alcohol and soda. A glorious American affair. My friend sampled everything – being careful not to overindulge. He did not have a heart attack. The next morning he said to his wife, “You know, I don’t think I really had a heart attack. I think it must have been indigestion.”
This is the mental trick of unsuccessful life style changes. It is common in many chronic ailments. Early success at change is the result of an acute episode that scares people into change. As time moves the patient away from the acute event – the fear subsides and the mental games begin. This is truly a form of denial that is not healthy. But hey, my friend likes bacon and eggs, and he likes to smoke every hour or so.
We commonly do not get angry with people for having an illness. We often get angry when someone knows they have an illness and refuse to make the changes necessary to manage the illness. How many men with heart disease are scorned by family for continuing to smoke. They are forced underground – they hide behind the garage, out in the alley, to sneak a cigarette.
Managing alcoholism or drug addiction is no different than managing other chronic illnesses. The mental discipline required to stay with a program of change is daunting.
Tough love is required of family and friends – and the emphasis is on the word love.
See Also: On Addiction