On February 10, the New York Times published an online discussion forum asking several experts, “What is Addiction?” The experts were asked to weigh in with their thoughts on, “Is addiction a disorder, a matter of human frailty or something else?”
This debate about whether addiction is a disease or a matter of choice continues to garner headlines and direct our collective discussion away from the only thing that really matters: “How do people enter recovery from addiction and stay well?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death, more than motor vehicle accidents. Bluntly put, each day a plane crashes in America full of young people and here we sit in 2014 rehashing the same circular argument about the nature of the problem?
We have debated whether addiction is a disease or choice since the signing of the Declaration of Independence when Dr. Benjamin Rush was the first published American to call chronic drunkenness “a distinct progressive disease” in 1784.
Regardless of whether any one of us thinks, knows or believes that addiction is a disease, people are dying. If any one of us thinks, knows or believes that addiction is a choice, people are still dying.
I’d say it’s time for a new debate, wouldn’t you?
Better yet, how about a brand new conversation informed by the lives of those most closely connected to the issue?
Some 23.5 million Americans are living in recovery — 10 percent of all American adults 18 and older, according to New York State’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
Regardless of how you want to categorize the nature of the problem, there is a solution. People get well. More than 23 million people have gotten well, and I am one of them.
Today, I pay taxes, vote and have been contributing my share for more than 12 years, since I entered recovery when I was 17 years old, after nearly losing my life to addiction. You can refer to me as a drug-addicted junkie who made bad choices or as a good kid who got caught up with a bad illness. Either way, my recovery from addiction is worth anywhere from $250,000 to $2.3 million dollars to you, the taxpayer. I no longer crash cars, have run-ins with the legal system or end up in emergency rooms.
I am not alone. In 2013, Faces & Voices of Recovery, a nonprofit organization, published “Life in Recovery,” the first-ever national survey documenting the dramatic improvement in the lives of those who are addicted and enter recovery. Of people who leave active addiction, findings include:
- Steady employment increases by more than 50 percent
- Planning for the future (e.g., saving for retirement) increases nearly threefold
- Twice as many people further their education or training
- Twice as many people start their own businesses
- Participation in family activities increases by 50 percent
- Volunteerism in the community increases nearly threefold
- Involvement in illegal acts and involvement with the criminal justice system (e.g., arrests, incarceration, DWIs) decreases about tenfold
But sadly for you the taxpayer, we have not invested in finding out how people get into or sustain long-term recovery the way we have done with remission from HIV/AIDS or cancer. If we only knew more about how these 23 million Americans got and stay well, then we would be making real progress. Pathology or behavior would then be the least of our concerns.
What you think about people like me wouldn’t really matter if you could accept that we must find better ways to attack the issue of addiction and that helping people like me benefits you and all of society. That’s where the conversation in the documentary “The Anonymous People” begins — with a brand new debate on addiction from the place where everyone wins regardless of your position in the tired, old revolving debate.
Greg Williams, a person in long-term recovery for more than 12 years from addiction to alcohol and other drugs, is the filmmaker of the new feature film, “The Anonymous People,” opening in Los Angeles on April 14, 2014. Williams received his masters in addiction public policy and documentary film from New York University. For details on this new film in please visit: http://manyfaces1voice.org.