Lessons from Laura

Lessons from Laura

Is it a Choice? Or a Disease?

Lesson from Laura by Carolyn Bradfield

Before I went through the experience with my daughter Laura, I concluded that drinking and using drugs was a series of poor choices that pointed to a weakness of character. However, the science behind how the brain functions, the statistics on the genetic link in those that become addicted, and the opinions of experts who have studied addiction has changed my mind on this issue.

Having said that, the debate over whether addiction is a disease or choice is a hot topic among parents and loved ones who are trying to make sense over the path that their friend or family member is following in the pursuit of substances despite increasingly negative consequences.

The Case for Disease

One of the prime directives we have as parents is to be observant, recognize the signs that your child may be in trouble and find ways to intervene. Here are some things that you should be on the lookout for.

When Alcoholics Anonymous was found in 1930, scientists and doctors paid attention to the factors that created the compulsion to use drugs and alcohol leading most of these professionals to conclude that addiction is truly a disease. The disease point of view focused on changes in the brain that occur with chemical dependency.

Once these changes occur, choice is essentially no longer an option for most people. These same professionals pointed to other diseases like diabetes or cancer that have genetic risk factors, a factor in roughly 10 percent of the population.

The view that addiction is a disease is shared by the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine along with a host of neuroscientists, pharmacologists, and psychologists.

The Case for Choice

There are those on the opposite side of the debate chemical dependency is a choice pointing to research that connects addictions to behavior. Because treating addiction revolves around modifying behavior, then professionals argue that addiction is a choice, not a disease. The point of view is that if we have no choice, then addicts can never recover.

In an article published by ABC News, psychologist Jeff Schaler, author of Addiction Is a Choice, argues that people have more control over their behavior than they think. "Addiction is a behavior and all behaviors are choices," Schaler says. "What's next, are we going to blame fast-food restaurants for the foods that they sell based on the marketing, because the person got addicted to hamburgers and french fries?"

The Middle Ground

When an individual first decides to use substances, they clearly exercised their choice to do so. However, as the brain becomes rewired and the production of chemicals in the brain accelerates well beyond normal levels, that choice to continue drug use becomes overwhelming and uncontrollable. The brain has now entered a diseased state making treatment necessary, but difficult.

Take a look at a common definition of disease: A condition that causes an interruption, cessation or disorder of the body, its system, or the way the organs function. 

Knowing that the brain is the most important organ in the body, the addicted brain has been interrupted and is no longer functioning in a normal way, a classic definition of disease.

My Takeaway

I am firmly in the camp that addiction is a disease that begins with a series of choices that compromise the brain's ability to function normally. The individual must make the choice to seek treatment and allow others to help them address the damage that has been done to the brain and allow the brain to heal and restore itself to a more normal state of functioning. Excluding the biology behind the addicted brain will often lead one to judge the afflicted person by focusing only on their behavior and not the disease state behind it.

InterAct LifeLine

InterAct provides technology for Virtual Care and Opioid Education Programs for use by treatment programs, state and local governments and non-profits.  Carolyn Bradfield founded InterAct LifeLine in 2018, shortly after her daughter overdosed and died.

Visit InterAct