The comment under an article that started it all:
“We shouldn’t have to help fund the drug problem! Addiction is not a disease, it is a choice!”
Normally, I brush off offensive statements about addiction and recovery. I even defend those people at times, telling my friends that they just don’t understand and that it’s possible they have never been touched by the disease of addiction. I almost envy them for a moment; that capability to overlook how heart wrenching it is to watch someone you love struggle with this disease or the ability to bypass every article and obituary that mentions another life lost to an overdose. But for some reason this one comment stuck with me for days, and I need to set it free before it tears me apart.
My first thoughts after reading that comment were wrong. Believe me, they usually are. When I initially read it, I seriously considered replying to it. I was already cooking up some really good ideas in my head. I wanted to tell that person that they are already funding the “drug problem” because a portion of their state tax dollars go towards funding our jails and prison systems, which are comprised of 75% addicts, alcoholics and non-violent drug offenders. Add onto that unemployment, welfare, foster care, etc. So, why not start funding a solution?
I wanted them to know that comments like theirs only add to the stigma of addiction, and just because we are addicted does not mean we are illiterate.
Hundreds of people die every single day from addiction and there are millions of people who struggle with alcohol and/or drugs, so if addiction is truly a choice, then there are millions of immoral people walking around in our communities. I refuse to believe that!
First, I understand that I cannot control the comments and behaviors of others, nor do I have the power to change their opinions. Like me, they have freedom of speech, and although I do not agree with them, they still have a right to it. So instead of focusing my energy on debating whether or not addiction is a disease, I spend my time focusing on the one solution that worked for me; advocating for addicts and recovery. I started bringing recovery into the jails and institutions in my community that are flooded with individuals who need it.
Let’s face it, it is much easier to consider addiction a choice than to try to understand it. Addiction hardly makes sense to medical professionals, let alone the ones who experience it, so I can understand why those who have never known or loved an addict would think of addiction as simply selfish behavior. It certainly appears that way from the outside and it would be easier to believe this theory than to try and find a way to treat something as confusing and infuriating as addictive behavior.
If a person has never been touched by addiction, they have the ability to ignore it even exists, but when has ignoring this disease ever stopped it from progressing? When has the war on drugs ever succeeded in keeping drugs off of the streets and out of the hands of our children? The truth is, it hasn’t, because it is much more complicated than simply choosing to “just say no!”
When I hear someone say, “I don’t understand why they don’t just stop using, it’s not that hard,” I cringe. It makes my stomach hurt. It certainly sounds simple enough, but it has yet to prove itself as a viable solution. To me, “just say no” is the equivalent of telling a person with heart disease to “just stop having heart attacks,” or telling someone with diabetes to “just start making some more insulin.”
I am not an expert on the disease of addiction, and I don’t claim to be. I didn’t study addiction in college and you won’t find any credentials listed behind my name. I am, however, somewhat of an expert on my own addiction and what did and did not work for me. I feel like that gives me a smidgen of credibility on the topics of relapse prevention and addiction recovery.
I can tell you what didn’t work for me; trying to convince me that I wasn’t sick, I was just bad; shaming me into submission. I was a very sick person, a person who needed help. It was the social stigma surrounding me that caused me to be too ashamed to ask for help. I honestly believed if I admitted I was an addict I was confessing to a crime, and that I would end up in prison. Turns out, by NOT admitting I was an addict and seeking the help I so desperately needed, I ended up in the jails and institutions I was trying to avoid.
I didn’t choose addiction, and I don’t remember exactly when the ability to choose was taken away from me. I don’t remember which day it was that I woke up and decided to trade in my dignity and self-respect for a substance. And I didn’t choose recovery right away either. I was guided to it through a myriad of colossal mistakes, damaged relationships and chance encounters with some brilliant recovering addicts. If you would have asked me back then if I was addicted, I would have told you that I was not the one with the problem, it was everyone else around me who had a problem with the way I lived my life. I didn’t know I was sick, and even when the idea started to reveal itself to me through my increasingly erratic and irrational behaviors, I refused to believe it. Addiction does that to a person. It re-prioritizes everything in a persons brain until the addict is 100% convinced they need the substance to survive and once they find themselves in survival mode, they will go to any lengths to obtain their drug of choice. If you attempt to just take the substance away from them, they will feel as if you have taken away their ability to breath. Cunning, baffling, powerful…
I’ve learned that if a stranger wants to view me as a bad person because I suffer from addiction, I cannot control that. All I can do is continue working to be the best possible version of myself despite the stigma attached to my illness. If you pull up my public record, you will see that I have been arrested twice, and although it probably looks like I fit the description of a bad person on paper, don’t let those charges fool you. At the time, I didn’t believe I was doing anything wrong, I was just trying to survive the only way I knew how, the way my sick brain was telling me to. I am embarrassed by my actions today, and I wish that I could go back and change them. I feel sadness and guilt, and I wonder how I ever let things get that far? I don’t believe bad people feel remorse or regret, but I can tell you that addicts do!
Those arrests simply served as proof of the type of person I was capable of becoming when I was in the grip of my disease, and I know that I am capable of much worse today should I ever choose to pick up again. I have not repeated those behaviors since I have gotten healthy, and I can confidently say that I will never repeat them again as long as I stay connected to my recovery and my recovery community.
My consequences fit my crimes, I will never disagree with that, but what surprises me is that I was never sentenced to a recovery program of any kind. I wasn’t even required to go to AA meetings. And although it was ultimately the pain of those actions, and the consequences that accompanied them, that finally led me to seek recovery for myself, I still find it interesting that Anonymous Fellowships and other treatment options were never even mentioned to me in that court room, especially since addiction has been categorized as a disease for decades, and both times I was arrested I was under the influence of the same substance.
I haven’t picked up any mood or mind altering substances in over 2 years. To a person who has not battled addiction, it probably doesn’t sound like that big of a deal. I can hear them say, “So, she finally started making better choices. So what?!?” But to those who have struggled with addiction and those who still struggle with addiction today, they understand what a tremendous accomplishment it is and how difficult that “choice” can be on any given day.
The fact that I am still alive and here to share my story is a miracle in itself, whether anyone acknowledges it or not. The fact that I can share my story publicly on a site like Addiction Unscripted, have my own recovery blog, go into prisons to speak with inmates and share my story at the treatment centers where I was once a resident, makes me feel empowered. It gives me hope! It makes the concept of change seem…possible.
I suffered in silence for years, but I will no longer allow the opinions of others determine my worth as a human being. My experiences, experiences I never thought I would ever be able to say out loud to another human being, are tiny examples of recovery in action. If society would open their hearts and their minds to the disease of addiction, millions of voices would emerge to inspire us all with stories of redemption, because just as there are millions in active addiction, there are also millions in long term recovery. I know I cannot help every addict, but I believe I can help at least one, and I have to continue to believe that. I won’t let the negative comments of others stop me from experiencing this type of freedom.
I am not perfect, and I am still healing, so comments from complete strangers can still hurt me at times. They can still get under my skin, but I am not going to use over them. I know my worth today, and I didn’t find it in a bottle, pill or needle. I have to remind myself that I am still a success story, even when I feel like I am failing. I have learned that there is a big difference between how I am feeling and how I am actually doing. I still have a lot to offer, even when I am feeling that my experience, strength and hope is faltering. Just by simply addressing this topic proves that I am doing a lot better than I give myself credit for. That speaks volumes about how far I have come since I hit rock bottom.
I am grateful that I understand addiction as a disease today. I am grateful to be a recovering addict, as crazy as that might sound, because that one admission changed the course of my life, and the lives of those who love me, forever. I am grateful that I was met with mercy, not condemnation; compassion, not judgement. I carry that mercy and compassion to other addicts in hopes that they will start to believe in themselves too. In hopes that they will put down the substance and start the process of discovering their worth, because we are all worthy.
Today, I choose to be part of the solution, not the problem, and that is a choice I am proud of