Addiction is a Disease Not a Moral Failure

Addiction is a Disease Not a Moral Failure

I am an alcoholic with 4 years sobriety. I was formerly in the running to become the next CEO of a bulge bracket money management firm, but alcohol caught up with me in my mid 40’s and I blew up my life in spectacular fashion.

As is the current typical outcome for an untreated and unaware addict, I went to jail, lost my family, my job and most of my net worth in the process. I faced the cold choice all addicts finally face—quit or die, and thanks to the grace of God I was able to make the decision finally to live life as a sober being and carry on.

I entered rehabilitation treatment at the Betty Ford Center 10 years ago, and have progressed steadily in relearning how to live a sober life with the help of a 12 step program. Recovery has been a bit of a bumpy ride for me at times, and even then it took me many years of going in and out to get to two full years sober. I now have four and a half years of sobriety. Through this program I have found a whole new way to exist, and I can say with total confidence that I am really happy for the first time in my entire life. I have miraculously completely lost my desire to use any mind altering substances at all, and I am perfectly content to sip soda water while those around me drink what they will. I am not “cured” as there is no cure for addiction, and I take my sobriety one day at a time.

Now that I have finally gotten sober, I have had time to reflect upon my entire life experience at some length. I realize now that I was born an alcoholic, my “wiring” was defective, and I was genetically doomed from birth to suffer from the disease of alcoholism. When I was 14 and just starting out on the long, rotten road towards a lifetime of struggle with addiction, no one ever told me then or later in words I could understand that I may have been different from other kids. No one told me that the “wonderful” feelings I experienced when I used drugs and alcohol may have been different than from how the rest of humanity reacted when doing the same things. No one told me that I might have a progressive, probably fatal, disease that only 1 in 10 suffer from. No one told me that hardship, suffering and pain were the highest probable outcome for how my life would be lived. No one told me that some people’s brain chemistry is twisted from birth, that genetics has a big role in that, and that there are clear signs to watch out for to let me know I could be one of “them”. In short, no one adequately prepared me for the agony that was to come in my personal life.

I marvel now at all those years I spent in school, supposedly preparing me for what was to come later in life–that no one ever explained to me in ways I could understand the most important and relevant thing of all—what addiction is all about and what happens to the people who have the disease. No one ever even called it a disease. Most people still think of it as a moral failing, in spite of massive amounts of hard evidence to the contrary. So I lived my life in ignorance, thinking I was just like everybody else, thinking they all enjoyed getting high on things in the same exact way I did. I didn’t have any idea that I was just a walking, talking time bomb, and it was to be game on as soon as I discovered tobacco, drugs and alcohol. Like many addicted people, I managed to conceal my illness, and remained quite functional until my mid 40’s, when it all exploded in spectacular fashion.

So here’s the thing. Nobody to this very day feels comfortable talking about addicts or addiction or alcoholism. Everyone knows somebody in their immediate circle of family and friends who suffer from it. Everybody has suffered either directly or indirectly from it, whether its watching a child die, a relative killed by a drunk driver, someone robbed by a junkie desperate for drugs, etc. etc. I am willing to bet that well over 2/3 of the people in jail today are there because of addiction related causes.

Addiction is the dirty secret that we all like to hide. You don’t tell your dinner partner about your alcoholic and non-functional brother, mother or cousin. You certainly don’t tell him about your alcoholic self!! We do not talk about it. We do not study it scientifically like other diseases. We have no statistics on what treatments work and what don’t work. We haven’t studied the genetic components like they do with other diseases. The Medical community has a problem even calling it a disease. Why?  30-45 million people in the US have it and are walking around with it, set to explode, right at this moment. What other disease has so many afflicted, with so little ongoing research into its nature?

I really want to find a way to reach out and talk to that naïve kid who was me 42 years ago, to warn him to be careful, to tell him that there are things relating to the disease of addiction out there in the future that he should be aware of and on the lookout for, and that there are steps he can take to mitigate the problem should it arise, short of destroying his whole life and the lives of those around him.

I plan to do this by developing in conjunction with some scientists, academics, child psychiatrists, addicts with the disease and teachers a one day course on addiction which I hope to get into the California high school system. Judging by my own life experience, I am firmly convinced of the need to reach out to high-school kids to explain the scientific state of the art regarding addiction research and addicts to them in a way they will find interesting, age appropriate and most importantly useful later in life. The objective being to begin to educate the next generation about the disease; to plant the seed in the mind of the future addicts so they can begin to recognize it earlier in themselves and seek assistance before they completely destroy their lives; and to eventually spur further primary research on addiction.

Tackling and correcting society’s errant views about addiction and addicts is a massive undertaking which is likely to take at least a full generation or two. Addiction is a disease, like Diabetes, like Alzheimer’s, like Cancer, but it is not treated like one. Addicts are reviled as “weak” individuals, with no willpower or social conscience, who care only about themselves and destroy the lives of those around them. Society’s response has primarily been to incarcerate them, and as a result our jails are full primarily of addicts who are simply doing what their brains are wired to do. They are not hardened criminals, they are not bad people, they are simply addicts who have a disease and are not being properly treated for it. They don’t understand it either, no one does, and that has got to change.

I will feel the pain of addiction for the rest of my life, but I am hopeful that I can at least contribute in some small way to ease the unnecessary suffering of so many others, particularly those younger kids who maybe don’t have to blow up their entire life to find out they have this disease. I fervently believe there must be an effective way to reach them while they are still young in a way they will understand to educate them about the disease and to prepare them adequately to watch for the signs of it later in life. That is the mission of the Addiction Education Society, and I hope you will consider joining me in attacking this terrible problem.