Is Addiction a Disease?

Is addiction a disease?

There are different definitions of disease. To begin this discussion, we should review the definition…

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Merriam-Webster defines disease as “an illness that affects a person, animal, or plant: a condition that prevents the body or mind from working normally; a problem that a person, group, organization, or society has and cannot stop; 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.” says “a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure, or system of the body resulting from the effect of genetic or developmental errors, infection, poisons, nutritional deficiency or imbalance, toxicity, or unfavorable environmental factors; illness; sickness; ailment.”

So based on these definitions, addiction is a disease. Someone suffering from addiction is not in a state of complete physical, mental or social well-being. The addict’s body, and especially mind, do not work normally. The addict, if a true addict, cannot stop. Addiction impairs normal function of many body systems. There are many distinguishing signs and symptoms of addiction.

What body systems are affected? For starters, the brain. Drugs contain chemicals that tap into the brain’s communication system and disrupt the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. There are at least two ways that drugs cause this disruption: (1) by imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers and (2) by over stimulating the “reward circuit” of the brain. ; Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.). Other affects to the brain are fatigue, sleeplessness, depression, paranoia, psychosis. Certain drugs, like stimulants, can increase heart rate, cause arrhythmias and increase body temperature, especially when combined with other drugs (legal or not). Alcohol effects the liver, pancreas, stomach, esophagus wreaking havoc on those systems when habitually taken in excess. Sometimes these body systems ‘heal’ when the drug/alcohol is removed, but not always.

Why is it important to consider addiction a disease?

So what, who cares if we label addiction as a disease or not? The addict, deep in his or her addiction couldn’t care less. It isn’t until the fog starts to clear that they even begin to think about whether or not what they suffer from is anything more than a terrible choice they made. The guilt and shame weigh heavily. Sometimes so heavy that they can’t ever recover.

Once I was in recovery, I had a hard time accepting my addiction as a disease. My Counselor asked me a simple question…”If you had a choice, would you choose to use alcohol and drugs to the extent that you did?” My answer was no. I would not have hurt myself, my family, my friends, my employer. I would not have put my patients at risk. I would not have willingly given up the career that I loved so very much. I would not have done any of that. I would have done the exact opposite. Much like a diabetic who neglects their health, eating things they shouldn’t, not taking their insulin as prescribed. Their health can progress tragically, resulting in blindness, heart attack, limb loss and death. Yet, nobody denies diabetes is a disease. Even though the resulting ailments can be attributed to the lack of self-care, it is accepted as a disease. My addiction makes me more susceptible to making bad choices. Those choices can lead to devastating consequences. Yet I am labeled a criminal, someone to be punished. That only leads to more guilt and shame and progresses the addiction. Some of us are lucky enough to get clean despite that. For me the pain of my consequences forced me to change. I was lucky to have supportive friends and family. Many addicts don’t. The love and acceptance I felt made it easier for me to want to do better. It gave me hope.

Knowing that addiction is a disease helped. Knowing that I wasn’t bad but that I had a disease made it a bit easier to accept. It did not absolve me of my bad choices, but it explained them. Someone else could have the same mental condition I have and choose to get help instead of choosing to use drugs or alcohol, but I chose poorly, very poorly. I still had to pay for my legal discretions, and I did. But I came to the belief that I am not a bad person. My disease made me more susceptible to do the things I did, to make the choices I made. Again, it doesn’t dismiss them, only explains them. I take full responsibility for my actions, I have paid my ‘debt to society’. But I have hope that if I take care to treat my disease, I can be in recovery from it. There is treatment, we saw that last week. There is hope, there is recovery from the disease of addiction.

About the Author

Kristin Waite-Labott is a registered nurse and recovering addict who has firsthand experience with the challenges of addiction. She now works as the Head Nurse Coach at Veritus, a virtual treatment program for nurses with substance use and mental health disorders, and is dedicated to helping nurses overcome addiction and making a difference in the lives of others. Kristin is passionate about addressing the growing problem of addiction among healthcare professionals and encourages open discussions and action to prevent it from spreading further.

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