Last year, approximately 21.5 million people were diagnosed with a substance use disorder. Today, over 27 million Americans are current illicit drug users, and 16.3 million people remain heavy alcohol abusers.
It is easy for us to jump to conclusions when we think of these people; when we think of drug addicts. It is easy for us to assume that they brought the addiction upon themselves, or that addiction is a choice they made the moment they decided to use drugs or drink. The problem with these assumptions, however, is that they are far from the truth.
Addiction is a persistent disease of the brain. Addiction can afflict anyone. Research has proven that many people are predisposed to addiction at birth—and for those especially, it takes a lot of commitment and willpower to quit. However we look at it, addiction is a battle that millions of Americans struggle with each day. Someone you know, someone you care about, may be battling an addiction at this very moment. Does that change how you view addiction?
New Jersey Governor and presidential candidate, Chris Christie, spoke out about substance addiction at a recent campaign event in Belmont, New Hampshire. During an evening happy hour at a small, local tavern, Christie shared with his audience two very emotional anecdotes on his personal relationships with addicted individuals. He further showed how they shaped his own perception of drug addiction.
Christie began with a story of his mother, who became addicted to cigarettes as a teen. Despite her various efforts, she could not kick the habit until age 71, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Christie’s best friend died of a prescription drug overdose. He was a successful lawyer, a healthy husband, and father of two, who was prescribed painkillers for back pain. Within a single year, he became addicted. He lost his job, his family’s support, his home, and eventually, his life, trapped amidst the addiction cycle.
The difference between the two stories is that, as Christie explained, no one blamed his mother’s smoking habit for her cancer. No one denied her chemotherapy treatments because of her addiction. Yet despite their mourning, many still blamed Christie’s friend for his painkiller addiction. They believed that he brought death upon himself, because of the choice he made to continue taking pills.
Despite the fact that addiction, similar to asthma or diabetes, is a disease, the public continues to treat it as a decision that a person makes. To many, it is something a person asks for. Yet drug addiction alters the way the brain functions. It prevents a dependent individual from simply stopping drug or alcohol abuse. Addiction is not a choice, but rather, a biologically rooted entity that can be successfully treated.
Many do not realize the reality of addiction. Many would rather treat drug addiction as a crime than as a medical problem. They see drug users as immoral. And they do not realize that it is exactly this view of addiction that prevents millions of Americans from receiving proper drug treatment.
The reason that addiction rehab centers do not always work is largely a result of the stigma that addiction carries. Addicted individuals are getting discouraged. They do not see hope. They blame themselves for their disease.
Changing our misconceptions, seeing addiction as a disease, and educating others on the impact of addiction, can improve the social support and professional treatment that these afflicted individuals receive. With our help, they can get the drug treatment they deserve.
Christie calls his listeners to action: “We need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover because every life is precious… We have to stop judging, and start giving them the tools they need to get better."
As Americans, we must reevaluate the way we look at drug addicts and the way we handle addiction treatment. We need to see that drug addiction is not a choice and that users should not be disregarded or disrespected because of their disease. Addiction, after all, can happen to anyone.
To watch the Christie’s recent speech on addiction in America, check out this Huffington Post article.