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Addiction: Are We Choosing to be Addicted?

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I can think of five television shows off the top of my head that specifically deal with addiction; whether it is the act of succumbing to it, seeking help, or the aftermath/detox. Unfortunately, these shows tend to gloss over two incredibly important facets of the flawed gem that is addiction. The first is the actual recovery of an “addict.” The second is entertainment of the notion that addiction is not a disease. Is there a plan to feed us the concept that addiction is a disease to save us from guilt? Is it another tenet of the self-help generation’s blame-less coddling? Is addiction as a disease just another way to keep us consuming more and more of our choice of drug (food, drugs, TV, sex, etc) and second guessing our choices less and less?

Intervention on A&E has spent 13 seasons filming addicts in their worst of times. Over-eaters, heroin junkies, meth cooks, and binge drinkers are edited down to a 40 minute compilation of the most depraved antics they are willing to allow on camera. At the end of the episode they are surprised with an intervention led by a counselor. Jeff VanVonderen, an author, recovering alcoholic, and former pastor is a level II Board Registered Interventionist. Candy Finnigan is also an author, recovering addict, and level II Board Registered Interventionist. If the addict decides on treatment, we see them arrive at the rehab center and then we are shot forward two to three months and given a very brief epilogue as the ending credits roll.

What you will not see in this show is the actual treatment, which by and large is likely the most important part of the process. Why aren’t we shown that? Because we can relate more to people when they are royally screwing up more than we can relate to some working hard to overcome personal demons. We would much rather see the cocaine addicted prostitute sleeping on the street and then magically healthy again after three months because it keeps our notion that anyone can addiction because it’s just a disease; like cancer or diabetes.

On Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, that is the closest we get to seeing the rehabilitation of addicts. But really, all we see is the withdrawal period of celebrities and then they either star on another show, Sober House, or they go on their merry way. Again, we are shown clips of the celebrities in the midst of addiction and during the medical phase of detoxification and then we get weekly installments of two weeks of childish egos bickering among piles of cigarettes over which one has the most dramatically gripping past. After 21 days or so, the treatment is done. The closest we see to treatment is small clips of group meetings and one on one sessions with Dr. Drew. But what about regular addicts that have to stay in rehab for 90 days? Well, apparently celebrities are quicker on the draw when it comes to overcoming addiction. It only takes them three weeks in a Real World-esque atmosphere and a pay-for-play contract before the monkey hops off of their backs.

Dr. Drew along with just about every other show dealing with substance abuse will tell you that addiction is a disease. Lupus, Smallpox, MDMA addiction; all of these things are the same. All of them can be treated, too! But the treatment is a secret for some reason. Stephen Dewey, of Brookhaven National Labs agrees that addiction is a disease of the brain. “Addiction is a disease that’s characterized by a loss of control,” says Dewey. He compares brain scans of those with alcoholism to brain scans of those that do not. The difference is staggering and obvious. Clearly, the alcoholic’s brain is active in areas that a non-addicted brain is not and vice-verse.  But what does the data really mean?  The brain of an addict operates differently. Take two children, one that likes reading and one that likes cartoons and scan their brains as they are both forced to do one activity or the other. Clearly the child who likes cartoons will have more brain activity than the one who doesn’t when they are forced to watch cartoons.The same goes for the inverse.

Comedian Doug Stanhope put it this way, “[Addiction]…just means you found something you like more than life itself. …It’s a choice.” Jeff Schaler is a psychologist and author of the book Addiction Is A Choice. He believes that we have a lot more say in our actions than we think.

As a former addict I could easily play either side of this argument. One part of me can say I have a craving while the other part of me says its a flair up as a result of my genetic predisposition to addictive properties. It is all centered around accountability. My cravings are my way of telling me I miss the way I felt when engaging in a specific activity.  Addicts that subscribe to the thought that they have a disease will call themselves recovering addicts even though they haven’t touched a substance in years. This is just a version of blame displacement in the event they decide to relapse. “Well, I said I was in recovery. I wasn’t cured of my disease and I had a flare up so I emptied your liquor cabinet and punched my landlord.”

By all accounts, I was addicted to cigarettes. I needed them to get through my day, my mother is addicted to cigarettes, and so was my father and brother. I have been smoke-free for about three years now based on a decision I made to stop smoking. This is not a choice you can make with a disease. No one decides to stop having AIDS and then have it go away. It doesn’t work like that. I come from a family of drinkers but I really don’t enjoy drinking that much. Where are the genetics there? Why don’t I like drinking as much as others in my family? Why am I not compelled to drink even though I am not really thirsty? Because, I choose not to.

Television won’t have you believe that. Media will tell you that you are addicted and need professional treatment. Some people do. I will agree that some need help overcoming the cravings of substances that are harmful to the body. But the help that is available only confirms the bias of addiction disease and does nothing to attempt accountability because guilty people feel too ashamed to feel better.

Today, I will see drinking in movies, walk past people smoking cigarettes, and watch overweight people ordering soda for their 4 year old children. I will do all of this and not buy a pack of cigarettes, a six pack of beer, or a baby to overfeed. I will do all of these things because after physical dependency is out of your system via detox, addiction is a choice not a disease.

Just the same, excuse me if I cover my mouth when I walk by, I wouldn’t want you to catch my addiction to cookie dough.

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