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by the Rev. Seamus Doyle

Is addiction really a disease? Don’t people know better? Is it not a question of willpower? Shouldn’t those going to drug court or treatment be punished to get it through their head to stop?

Education and treatment rather than punishment are what works. Alcoholics Anonymous works best for most. And, yes, there are those whose addiction will cause their death. “Willpower” works temporarily; many individuals have “given up alcohol (cigarettes, chocolate…) for Lent.”

The U.S. has a two hundred year history of going in circles about addiction as a disease, a moral issue, criminal behavior, etc. Since the late 1920’s, with longitudinal studies and increased knowledge of the brain, scientists are much more confident we are dealing with a disease that has rewired parts of the brain to diminish the ability of the addicted to altering this behavior.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

The behavior can be described as “willful,” “bad,” etc. Those in recovery testify to shame, guilt and sometimes shock at learning about their behavior while under the influence – they were in a blackout (dangerous behavior that ends in injury or calamity, uncharacteristically hurtful language, and of course, driving under the influence).

Punishment is counterproductive. All good people do “bad” things at one time or other. The behavior of an addict is best understood in terms of an alteration in brain functioning. Treatment is about helping an individual change his/her thinking and behavior while holding them responsible and accountable (even if they were drunk/high).

[More about the disease in the next article. Check out our web page Recovery Ministries; Google “World Health Organization” on addiction.]

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