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Is Addiction Really a Disease? Why It Matters to Our Children

Is Addiction Really a Disease? Why It Matters to Our Children

It's an all-too-common situation: A parent or close family member is addicted to alcohol or drugs (prescription or not), and the kids suffer for it. What you do, or don't do, likely depends on whether you believe that addiction is a disease.

Circle of Moms member Sara B. isn't quite sure. She poses the question, "Is addiction really a disease?" admitting that she doesn't quite buy it. She knows too many people who have "recovered" from this supposed illness, and if addiction is within one's control, then, by Sara's lights, it can't be a disease.

But don't people recover from diseases all the time, with or without the help of medical professionals and others? Sara goes on to argue that a disease is something beyond your power to control. While this can certainly be true sometimes, it is not always a given. Diabetes is a good example of a disease that can be influenced, even controlled in many cases, by the person who has been diagnosed.


Still, it's a good question. If something is a disease, then it's easy and acceptable to say that we are at its mercy, can do little or nothing to change our condition. Diseases overpower and claim the lives of many people every day, people who "did nothing to deserve it." But addiction is shrouded in blame and guilt. After all, addicts choose to drink too much or to become reliant on drugs.... right?

The scientific and psychological evidence doesn't bear out this common, and broadly expressed, sentiment. For example, the Mayo Clinic, a leading medical organization in the U.S. whose approach to dealing with addiction is based on the disease model, strongly suggests that genetics and physiology hold the key to uncovering the causes of addiction. The Clinic also holds that spiritual recovery is critical, and offers that published studies indicate that spiritual transformation may be enough to overcome physiology. This either makes addiction unique as a disease, or it has exciting implications for the treatment of all diseases.

Becky F. argues that the disease model absolves addicts of any responsibility for their addictions. There are also people who think cancer is caused by anger. If that were entirely true, it would stand to reason that cancer patients are somehow responsible for contracting this "preventable illness." Aren't the nuances of all our afflictions more complicated than the blame game?

How Calling Addiction a Disease Helps Our Children

Even if addiction is not a disease, the disease model that is currently embraced by our culture allows children and other family members affected by addiction to receive support and services that they might not otherwise get. For example, children and spouses can receive counseling without the stigma attached to other unfortunate situations their parent or partner might be involved in, such as crime. And this may be reason enough to embrace the disease model. 

In addition, as Amber N. argues, children of addicts are more likely to become addicted than their peers who have no family history of addiction. The discovery of addiction within a family could be leveraged to proactively try to prevent addiction in those with genetic ties. And when a child gets older he can use this information to make informed decisions about his own use of drugs and alcohol.

Finally, a child of any age might feel less anger toward and hopelessness about an addicted parent. Potentially negative and harmful emotions can be harnessed and transformed into helpful, constructive emotions, such as empathy and hope, which might contribute to possible solutions with complex family dynamics.

As JuLeah W. astutely points out, "[Addiction] is a disease, and within that there is choice." It's a bit like cardiology patient who has a triple bypass and then decides to eat a Big Mac every day. The disease is a fact, but his response to it can make it better or worse. 

Image Source: Courtesy of cory660 via Flickr/Creative Commons

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.

Join The Conversation
hannah65478 hannah65478 5 years
Alcohol addiction often flys under the radar with people managing to hold down jobs and appear normal. However it can be one of the hardest adictions to break, maybe because there's so much of it around. It is a nightmare living with an alcoholic as their behaviour is unpredictable and often irratic. They can be your best friend or the stuff of nightmares and what's worse is they can be very good at hiding it from outsiders so you are often not believed when you tell people they have a problem.
DeborahRoss79844 DeborahRoss79844 6 years
Addition is a disease and you should explain it to your children, if they are having to deal with it in their lives. They also need to know it is a choice and can be conquered. They also need to know using is not acceptable, they probably already knoe it is hurtful and the addict is responsible for all their actions. Love and forgiveness is important, but never let the addict make you a victim. My husband was an abusive addict and I did not want my girls to except his actions and later in life chose a partner and think this is alright because we love that person and it is a disease.
CasseyRushing CasseyRushing 6 years
Its not a disease. 100% of this is mental. But every person is different on their needs to quit.
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