OP-ED: It Doesn’t Matter Whether You Believe Addiction is a Disease or a Choice

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Greg Williams (L) at a  screening of the documentary "The Anonymous People."

Robert Stolarick / JJIE

Greg Williams (L) at a screening of the documentary "The Anonymous People."

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.

The Anonymous People - Trailer from Greg Williams on Vimeo.

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

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14 thoughts on “OP-ED: It Doesn’t Matter Whether You Believe Addiction is a Disease or a Choice

  1. Pingback: Does it matter whether it’s viewed as a disease? | Addiction & Recovery News

  2. As a current addict who is fighting for sobriety I find that living(being) alone is a major issue for me . I can’t stand coming from work and going into my desolate room. I’ve tried many different things but still end up in my room yet again . It keeps my mind running back to the same darn thing . Though I have people who love and care for me I find it very difficult to talk about these issues . I get out of work too late to find a meeting and I go in too early to reach one also . As much as I try to stay away and know that I can get incarcerated it (addiction) still grasps me . I really hate the feeling and feel that writing this keeps me somehow sane knowing that after this who knows what im going to do

  3. How helpful it would be if people in recovery could share their wisdom of what works for them. Those of us with family members ,who are still struggling or fragile, would gain enormously. I’m willing to help in any way.
    –Rob Atkinson

  4. Thank you. I’ve been in recovery for over 4 years. This literally gave me chills. Never ever think that you’re alone in this there is a ton of us fighting for addiction to have a voice. Thank you so much Mr. Williams. I’m always open to talking about my story and how I’ve got this far in my recovery.

  5. It is important for people in recovery and their loved ones to publicly advocate for themselves and each other. The Anonymous People is a great and inspiring film and should be seen by everyone. I generally agree with this article and am so happy with the work that Greg is doing. I am also open to being wrong about the following:
    Did you ever have a problem with substances that you don’t have now does not describe recovery. It captures people who may have had one DUI and choose not to drive while drinking anymore, people who drank too much in college and now moderate, people who misused substances and altered or stopped their use due to negative consequences. It includes people who do not have a chronic problem and people who do not have addiction. Including these people, especially if they do not self- identify as being in recovery, as being “Americans in recovery” contributes to myths about addiction being about character and people with addiction being bad. Everybody knows someone who had a problem with substances and doesn’t currently have that problem. Most of those people probably quit or moderated and are using non problematically – they may or may not have made lifestyle changes, other than altering their use, that contribute to their wellness. Most probably do not consider themselves to be in recovery. Including them as people in recovery dilutes the seriousness of addiction, minimizes the importance and significance of recovery and potentially contributes to myths that lead to stigma. People who use substances problematically, and do not have addiction, create a lot of harm to themselves, their loved ones and to society. They need attention as well, but they may not need recovery. The disease model comes with some negatives including the potential for Pharma and other helping professionals to co-opt the concept of recovery, but it does express the chronicity of the problem in a way that conveys the need for an ongoing and intentional recovery process. The disease vs. choice argument is old and tired and we do need to get past it. By saying we should stop having this debate and including those who clearly do not have addiction among those in recovery, we may do a disservice to people who are still suffering with addictions, their loved ones and people who are in recovery.

  6. I am an addict in recovery coming up on a year this is a disease we are born with like alcoholism. We have so many studies and in the late 50’s early 60’s it was deemed and a disease by the government. Though now the manifestation has astronomical numbers we are fighting an epidemic contrary to the HIV \AIDS epidemic. If the people want to know our stories and how wecame to the point of death let us speak….it might amaze some that i was a professional with degree and all taken in months. Unless you have lived it and felt it you wouldn’t understand but we can help you see how we think and so on.

  7. Pingback: Let’s Get Unstuck on debate about addiction. | Stuck on Social Work

  8. I love this. My 20 yr old son od’d 10/5/12 and I’m sick of people in this country turning a blind eye because our precious, addicted children “morally flawed” and don’t deserve help. Our young people are DYING!!! We have to make this stop!!

  9. As a parent:
    I want to scream
    I want this to end
    I want a normal life again
    I want my child to be happy
    I want life to be full of laughter
    I want to smile at my memories
    I want grandchildren
    I want NORMAL and HAPPINESS
    I don’t want to cry any more
    I don’t want to stay awake all night with worry
    I don’t want to see or hear of another child dieing
    I don’t want another family to go through this
    I don’t want to look in the eyes of my child and see his pain
    I don’t want to go to another funeral

    I Love my child more then life it self…………………

    • Kim,…when you find out how to attain all of this please share it with us. There is so much gut wrenching pain in addiction, for the addict and the family. There has got to be a way. How many more of our children do we have to bury before society will open their eyes and their hearts to the devastation addiction brings?

    • I am a mother in pain … where did my son go … deep inside himself … alone … he cries … alone … his despair cutting deep into his psyche … and those unaffected … walk on by … they don’t even care if he lives or dies … and he knows it … they could help and should help … mentoring … more men who will mentor … who have the means to help … one at a time … a disgrace … shame on those who don’t reach out to mentor a lost boy. Boys need men … men need men who understand their pain … men don’t reach out … they go within. Sadly … unnoticed … and falling fast into the deep dark hole … where lost souls can’t sleep … and where they torment themselves with feelings of failure. Reach out almighty men for you were made in the image of GOD.

    • Kim I love this you put into words just what so many of us moms think and feel daily!

    • I completely feel your pain. I am emotionally spent. Between anger, fear, frustration, sorrow, and wondering what I did wrong as a parent…. I’m tired. I don’t remember addiction being this prevalent when I was in my late teens and early 20’s. Like you said … I love my child more than life itself. I just wish he loved himself… and his life as much as I do.