Many people want to know if we should consider addiction as a disease or not. There are some pros and cons to each way of looking at addiction and alcoholism, but ultimately I think there is a slight edge in viewing it as a real disease.
Let’s take a closer look.
First of all you have the idea that a disease gives you an excuse. This can be a problem for those who would use the disease concept to justify further drinking and drugging. They have no intention of changing and so they just use the idea that they have a disease to continue to abuse their drug of choice. Obviously this is not helpful at all, but it is probably less common than you think, too.
Then there is the idea that we are actually dis-empowering ourselves in recovery when we give power to the idea of the disease model. This depends largely on your own attitude and how you deal with addiction in your own life, but many people think that they give too much power away when they call their addiction a disease. Whatever works for you is great. If a mindset is not working for you, then change it! If you constantly relapse because you believe that calling it a disease is negative and is hurting your chances at recovery, then change your internal language. Not a huge deal and of course this depends on your own personal attitudes.
So these are some of the cons. But what about the pros?
Think of all the millions of people who are using drugs and alcohol and they are beating themselves up about it. They are making a judgment against themselves. They are saying “I am bad because I use drugs and alcohol.”
If this attitude or mindset is preventing them from seeking help for their problem, then they need to change it. And this is quite common in the world of addiction. Shame and guilt are powerful.
So the disease model helps to overcome this thinking. If you can change the addict’s mind and convince them that they have a disease, then you can shift some of that blame and guilt away from them. If you can do this enough that the person then feels positive enough to take action and seek professional help, then that is really worthwhile.
The question is: does this actually happen enough to make the disease concept worthwhile?
My answer is that I believe it does. I work in a drug rehab facility and I see an awful lot of shame and guilt when people come in to treatment. Of course everyone is different but I see a lot of people who benefit greatly from the disease concept.
The fact is that when we treat addiction as a disease we get better results. In the past, addiction was treated as a moral failing instead, and there was not much success to be had in actually rehabilitating people.
Perhaps some day we will have an even more precise definition of addiction that will allow us to help addicts and alcoholics even more. But right now, the disease model is probably the best method we have available. It is not a perfect model, and it does not explain all things about addiction and treatment, but it does give us enough of a framework to successfully treat a small percentage of those who seek help. Success rates remain quite low, but there is definite hope today, whereas in the past there was almost no hope at all for the afflicted.
Using the disease model is probably better than ignoring it. So use it if it helps you.