Addiction: Disease or Moral Failing?
– by Chaplain Joe Herzanek
“There is a battle going on for the mind—a tug-of-war, you might say.”
– Chaplain Joe Herzanek, Why Don’t They Just Quit? Hope for families struggling with addiction.
Is addiction a disease? Webster’s Dictionary defines disease as: 1) a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms; or 2) a harmful development.
Alcohol or drug addiction satisfies both definitions. It is, in fact, a brain disease. This disease has its own set of diagnosable symptoms that can be measured and treated. At the same time, it is also a spiritual disease. So how does knowing this help you? To the person with the addiction, it helps them to understand what is happening to their body, both mentally and physically. There is a battle going on for the mind—a tug-of-war, you might say. To family members and friends, there is some relief in knowing that their loved one is ill (both physically and spiritually) and not necessarily insane. To hospitals and treatment centers, it means that they can treat the disease and that insurance companies can help cover the cost of treatment.
“I do not understand what I do.
For what I want to do I do not do,
but what I hate I do.”
~The Apostle Paul speaking to the church in Rome
Perhaps, though, the bigger question is, How does someone become addicted? If we can find the cause, maybe we can find a solution. This is a logical question with a not-so-easy answer. First, we must understand the background and history of the addict.
Nature vs. Nurture
Nature looks at things such as genetic makeup; so, is addiction passed down through the family like many other diseases? An overwhelming body of evidence says yes—there definitely is a genetic component or link. However, scientists and researchers can’t put a sample of the disease under a microscope and analyze it to prove that a link exists. There is also a problem when trying to predict which offspring or family member will develop the disease. This is kind of like a lawyer who builds a large case solely on mountains of circumstantial evidence. And there are many exceptions, too: some people who seem to have no genetic link at all develop the disease, and vice versa.
When we speak of nurture, we are referring to environment—where, why, when, and how a person begins and lives out their life. The focus is on factors such as neighborhood, social status, parenting skills, peer group, education, and role models—all of which can play a powerful role in a young person’s life. Then again, often children who have grown up in the same home and in the same environment later take drastically different directions in life. This nurture issue can work both ways. The honest truth is that kids from very bad environments and kids from the best homes may both find themselves with addictions. Are the odds stacked against those from less than desirable family backgrounds? I’m sure that they are.
Tragically, some children are raised in abusive homes. I have seen a disproportionate number of addiction cases that involve abuse. Many alcohol- or drug-dependent men and women are carrying a lot of baggage around and are looking for ways to cope with their profound pain.
But not everyone dealing with drug and alcohol abuse has experienced a severe tragedy or can claim a genetic predisposition. There are also those who simply like to drink, drug, and party. No baggage, no broken homes, no abuse. They just like the way they feel when they get high.
“There are also those who simply like to drink, drug, and party.
No baggage, no broken homes, no abuse.”
This was true in my case. I enjoyed the way I felt when I used drugs. I used for the simple reason that it was fun. Sure, I didn’t have a perfect childhood, and my parents could have done a few things differently. But if I’m really honest, I think that I just wanted to be one of the “cool kids,” which in my mind meant drinking and getting high. My former wife will attest to the fact that I wanted to portray a certain image. My adolescent years lasted a long time.
My nature and nurture were not all that bad. I don’t recall any relatives with substance-abuse problems. Neither of my parents ever had more than an occasional drink. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing either one of them drunk. I’m sure if you look long and hard enough, you can find someone in every family who drinks too much. But in my case, if there was a genetic link, it wasn’t obvious. No one in my family—mother, father, brother, sisters, aunts, uncles or grandparents—had this disease.
Can addiction be considered a moral failing? Talk about a hot potato. In our postmodern and enlightened society, morality is often viewed as closed-mindedness. We speak in terms of tolerance—what is right for you may not be right for me. Whose morals are we to use as the standard? Let’s look at the word morals for a moment. The dictionary defines it as “principles of right and wrong.” It mentions character and virtue. Regarding what is right and wrong, whose definition do we accept?
Most everyone would acknowledge that there are some universal absolutes that are generally accepted by a civilized society. For example, it is morally wrong to harm others without cause or for selfish reasons. Are addicts and alcoholics able to distinguish right from wrong? Have they lost touch with reality? Often it takes someone sober to point out the moral dilemmas that this person has caused for the family. For abusers, the drug has controlled them for so long that they often feel there is no other choice than to keep using. The craving has overtaken their ability to fully reason or think rationally.
“A man has free choice
to the extent that he is rational.”
~Saint Thomas Aquinas
My good friend Michael Connelly, from the Odyssey Training Center in Denver, Colorado, talks about how addiction creates limited choice. By limited Michael is referring to the ability to resist just so much craving or pressure. At some point, the dependent person caves in to the stress. His emotions and cravings overwhelm his decision-making process. There is a limited amount of control exercised. I like this way of explaining it. Looking back again at my own active addiction, I see some parallels. Part of me knew that my heavy substance use was wrong. At times, I felt bad or guilty about the way I was living. But as my addiction progressed and my condition worsened, it became more and more difficult to think clearly, and I didn’t experience those guilty feelings as often.
Even from a Christian or biblical perspective some of these topics do not have clear-cut answers. The Bible does not condemn drinking alcohol. It does condemn getting drunk and it warns of the potential for abuse.
Recently I watched a news story about a local man who robbed a hospital pharmacy. He came in with a gun, but did not demand money. He knew exactly what he wanted—a very potent painkiller. The pharmacist said that addicts reach a point where they are willing to do anything, even risk their lives for the drug. Did this guy know it was morally wrong to rob someone at gunpoint, to risk killing another person to get his drugs? What was he thinking? For the addict—the person with the malfunctioning brain—his craving of the drug had overwhelmed his thoughts. His addiction was telling him that his own life was at stake—that if he didn’t get the drugs he needed, he was going to die. To him it was a matter of life or death.
To someone watching the news report, his actions were obviously wrong. This was a moral failing, visible to everyone except the addict committing the crime. Once addiction has complete control of the person, the craving can far outweigh the decision-making process and the most unthinkable act becomes rationalized.
In the beginning stages of addiction, some feelings of guilt or shame just might be a good thing. Once someone moves into full-blown dependency, their choices become more and more limited as they try to satisfy their need for drugs. If not for the intervention of my family, I could have eventually become this drug thief myself.
Disease or Moral Failing?
So back to our original question: Is addiction a disease or a moral failing? I would have to say that it is both. For me, in the beginning stages, I knew what I was doing was wrong, but the pleasure that the drugs and alcohol produced won over my moral beliefs. After several years of living like this, my addiction brought me to the limited choice, or disease level. You could say that a person starts out flirting with danger (a moral failing), and ends up totally consumed by the disease of addiction.
“Drugs are a bet with your mind.”
This post, “Addiction: Disease or Moral Failing?” excerpted from Chapter 14 (Is addiction a disease or moral failing?) in the 2016 updated edition Why Don’t They JUST QUIT? Hope for families struggling with addiction.
Read More Related Posts:
Help an Addict by Raising Their Bottom:
Addicts like me, and potentially my son, often need to learn things the hard way. Judy vividly recalls a time when our son was about three years old. She was ironing and told him not to touch the iron—that it was hot. He looked directly into her eyes, stuck out his finger and touched it. At that moment she knew this was not going to be an easy road. He was going to have to learn things the hard way. READ MORE
“Raising The Bottom” is excerpted from Chapter 23 (Pivotal Teaching Moments: The “rock bottom” myth) of the 2016 updated edition of Why Don’t They JUST QUIT? Hope for families struggling with addiction.
A Family Disease:
“Once we recognize our futile attempts to stop a disease for which there has yet to be found a cure, we can begin to utilize different strategies in dealing with our addicted children.
We can allow our children to feel the consequences and results of their behavior. In essence, we can “raise their bottom.” We can begin to take care of ourselves by reaching out to mothers who have had similar experiences. We learn new ways to cope with the reality of addiction.“ READ MORE
Excerpted from: Why is Addiction Called “A Family Disease?”
~By Kathy Brock Frasier, Regional Director, The Addict’s Mom
Detachment. How Can I?:
When life becomes one crisis after another, when emotional pain and endless drama become “the norm” what am I supposed to do? Over the past few decades I’ve received this question a lot. Recently it has become the #1 question. Why is that? What do I suggest to families who have arrived at this place? How about this: My suggestion is to do NOTHING! Stop “doing.” READ MORE
“Detachment. How Can I?” is excerpted from the 2016 updated edition of Why Don’t They JUST QUIT? Hope for families struggling with addiction.
Chaplain Joe Herzanek and Judy met in 1984 at an AA meeting in Kansas City and have been married and in long-term recovery for over 30 years. She loves working from her home office in Berthoud, Colorado and the opportunity to combine her design, marketing and online skills with her 30+ years of sobriety to bring the message of hope to families struggling with addiction.
Please visit Changing Lives Foundation website
As the mom of a child struggling with addiction, and the author of ‘The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction,’ my ‘go to’ book is still “Why Don’t They Just Quit? ~Sandy Swenson
Best book ever about addiction. Written by one whose done it and is recovering. Easy to read, not preachy, just honest. I recommend this book to anyone with an addict in their life! ~Lynda A
Got an addiction problem in your family? Read this book. Joe knows his stuff. This book helps you to better understand those who are dealing with friends and family that are addicted to drugs and alcohol. I have read several of these books but this one is the best. ~RJ
MORE ASK JOE:
> If someone can stop using drugs or alcohol for weeks at a time, they “aren’t an addict—correct?
> Chronic Pain Management & Pain Pill Addiction: What to do?
>How can I know if my addicted friend or loved one is telling the truth?
>Should my husband “back off?”
>Gambling vs. Drug Addiction? What is your opinion?
>How can I tell if someone is an addict/alcoholic or just a heavy user?
>What is Methadone? What is Harm Reduction?
Addiction: Disease or Moral Failing?