Addiction: Understanding a Complex Disease


Addiction is a chronic, progressive, incurable, and often fatal disease. While addiction can manifest itself in any human being with a functional brain, certain factors can increase a person’s likelihood of becoming an addict. Addiction is insidious, as it distorts the reasoning abilities of the addict. Those afflicted with this disease will actually go to great lengths to keep the disease active, refusing treatment until the condition has reached its end-stages; incarceration, hospitalization, or impending fatality.  Addiction cannot be operated on, cannot be duplicated in a laboratory, and cannot be vaccinated against. It can, however, now be explained and understood in a way that fosters hope for successful treatment and healing, as well as effective prevention.

In 1956 The American Medical Association classified alcoholism as a disease, and in 2011 the American Society of Addiction Medicine utilized modern medical imaging technology and four years of extensive research to identify the factors which classify addiction as a physical disease. For a condition to qualify as a “disease”, it must fit the “disease model”, which is:

A) an organ, with,

B) a defect, which results in,

C) symptom(s). The ASAM’s definition may be found here. In addiction, the organ is the brain, the defect is (basically) a short-circuit in the connections between the brain’s higher functions for making us “human”, (cognition, emotion, imagination) and its basic functions for survival (shelter, food, sex, community). This defect can manifest in many ways, but the most common path is a genetic pre-disposition, coupled with traumatic experience(s) during the developmental years of a person’s life. The pivotal point in manifestation of addiction occurs with a decision whether or not to consume the first mood/mind altering chemical. Every decision regarding chemicals after the first one is a decision impaired by the disease of addiction. The symptoms of addiction are extremely complex and encompass cognitive, behavioral, and emotional manifestations. A few of the common and prevalent ones are; impulsive indulgence, repetition of behaviors regardless of negative consequences, denial of any problem related to behaviors, obsession with vehicles of euphoria (chemicals, sex, gambling, achievement, etc.), increased anxiety, profound depression, learning disabilities, and dissociative disorders, to name just a few. Addiction is a primary disease, meaning that addiction is not a symptom of another disease. Addiction is a chronic disease, meaning that it is a life-long condition which can be treated, but not cured. Addiction is a progressive disease, meaning that the afflicted never regresses to a previous stage of the disease’s path; if we relapse, we pick up right where we left off.

Here is my personal example of the onset, manifestation, and progress of addiction in my life. To the best of my knowledge, three of my grandparents suffered from addiction. In my seventh year I experienced both physical and emotional trauma as well as profound losses. In the same year, I received adult NyQuil for severe cold symptoms. I remember vivid dreams, feeling a euphoric state, and longing to feel the effects again. Certain environmental factors (media, family, and friends) inspired a curiosity and romanticism for drugs, alcohol, and impulsive behaviors. Physical and emotional abuses continued into my early teens. At age thirteen, I drank to intoxication. I felt “safe and whole”, worthwhile, and competent. The consequences of physical discomfort, and embarrassment did not outweigh the perceived gains of using. Alcohol, and soon drugs, satisfied all of my emotional needs, as well as minimizing the severity of unmet physical needs, such as shelter or food. Chemicals quickly became synonymous with all pleasures; hobbies, entertainment, relationships, sex, learning, and community. The disease progressed over my lifetime in accordance with the Jellinek Chart shown here, until I sought inpatient treatment for my disease and accepted that I did not know what to do for myself, and that I needed help.

My disease is now being treated through psycho-behavioral therapy, addiction counseling, group therapy, and 12-step programs. I don’t know if I will relapse or not. Nobody does. However, thanks to the ASAM’s extensive research, I know that if I relapse, my disease will not relent until I reach the end: “jails, institutions, or death.”



*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.

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