Addiction: A Disease Not a Disgrace

I just saw the film Lipstick and Liquor: A Documentary to Inspire a New Dialogue directed by Lori Butterfield. In this film the lives of five women are profiled. Four women describe their active alcohol (and some drug) abuse in contrast with their current lives in recovery. Thirty-nine-year-old Julie Kroll, the fifth woman, had been struggling to stay sober and was working with a sponsor, who was one of the other women profiled in the film. The day her world unraveled, Julie spoke with her sponsor in the morning and it seemed as if all was well. However, later that day the perfect storm of events and Julie’s relapse led to her death.

After departing the scene of a minor (single-car) automobile accident one frigid day in December 2009, leaving an open container of alcohol and her eight-year-old daughter inside the vehicle, the local police treated Julie as a criminal rather than a missing person. Family and friends took up the search when police failed to act initially. Days passed. By the time the police were convinced to investigate, it was too late. Her body was found not far from where the accident occurred in very short order, once the police instigated a grid search.

I sincerely hope the film will, indeed, inspire a new dialogue. Even though The American Medical Association describes Substance Use Disorder as a “chronic disease of the brain”  many take alternative views. Some people think addiction is a moral failing. Others think it is a choice.

According to CASA – The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse: “While the first use (or early stage use) may be by choice, once the brain has been changed by addiction, most experts believe that the person loses control of their behavior. Choice does not determine whether something is a disease … A disease is what happens in the body as a result of those choices.”

Still others like Lance Dodes, M.D., say addiction is not a disease but a symptom. Dodes posts in a 2011 blog: Recognizing addiction to be just a common psychological symptom means it is very much in the mainstream of the human condition. In fact, as I’ve described elsewhere, addiction is essentially the same as other compulsive behaviors like shopping, exercising, or even cleaning your house. Of course, addiction usually causes much more serious problems.”

Perhaps it’s both a disease and a symptom of “deeper underlying problems.” No matter what you call it, the person struggling with active addiction is a sick person. But recovery is possible, as evidenced by 4 of the 5 women in the film—and in my life. Recovery became my reality when life kicked my butt sufficiently to stop believing the lies I was telling myself. Only then did I put down the drink and the drugs, get outside help, and begin to practice 12-step recovery one day at a time. This included taking responsibility for my past disgraceful acts, making amends, and moving on.

It appears that for recovery to stick, the person needs to want it. Yes, this is a choice, but merely choosing isn’t enough. The choice must be followed by being ready and willing to do something different, and by staying motivated to keep doing what works. For me this translates to: clean house, meditate, pray, and give it away. Making use of my disgraceful acts to help another person recover is nothing short of the miracle of recovery.

It may be too late for Julie Kroll, but there are many for whom it is not too late, as long as we remember: All lives matter!