Despite scientific evidence that addiction is a disease, many people still believe addiction is a moral failing. Thinking a person is weak or lacking willpower for not being able to stop using drugs or alcohol contributes to the stigma surrounding addiction and prevents some from seeking treatment they desperately need.
Dr. Drew Pinsky, a board-certified internist, addiction medicine specialist and TV host widely known as Dr. Drew, is urging people to change the way they view addiction. For day three of the #14Days on the Wagon challenge, he spoke with CBS News about the need to "let go of this moralizing model about substances."
"It's the context and the relationship that humans have with chemicals that's really an issue here. It's not a good thing or a bad thing. It's not a weak[ness] or a strength. It's just a biological relationship that humans have in certain context."
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) offers a concise definition of addiction: "Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors."
Dr. Drew explains that all the brain's systems that are driven or motivated by survival, even such basic instincts as hunger and thirst, can be overtaken by the disease, compelling the addict to prioritize using drugs and alcohol above all else.
"The disease fundamentally is a motivational disturbance. It's a broken motivational priority," he says.
According to ASAM, addiction affects neurotransmission and interactions within reward structures of the brain until addictive behaviors supplant healthy self-care behaviors.
Once addiction takes root in a person's brain, using becomes their main objective, and it's nearly impossible to "just stop."
"It's the disease of our time, and people aren't really understanding what it is," he says.
Many factors may contribute to a person developing addiction, including exposure to trauma, unhealthy social supports, co-occurring psychiatric disorders, genetic predisposition, and environment, to name a few.
Once addicted, a person experiences the devastating effects in every aspect of life: relationships deteriorate, families fall apart, their health fails, and they may lose their jobs and homes.
Knowing the science behind the progressive disease of addiction can help reduce the stigma surrounding it, making it easier for people to seek help when they need it, and eventually shifting a judging and punishing mentality towards one of prevention and treatment.
Dr. Drew says resolving America's addiction crisis will take "changing the laws, changing the practice of medicine, changing the culture of understanding of pain and what we can do with that, and childhood trauma."
What do you think can help solve the addiction crisis in our country? Use the hashtag #14Days to share your thoughts.
If you missed day one of #14Days, it's not too late to take some healthy first steps.
And on day two of the series, we found out how tapping can help alleviate stress. For the next segment in the series, learn about the controversial moderation program, and get involved in the moderation debate.