It’s commonly questioned “is addiction a disease?” and it’s also commonly asked “is addiction a choice?” As a former addict, I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a kid with cancer, “I understand, I have a disease to… It’s called addiction…” At the same time we’re talking about definitions and not emotions. It may feel wrong trying to empathize with someone who has a different disease from the negative stigma placed on drug addiction. However, when asking “is addiction a disease?” or “is addiction a choice?” it’s pretty black and white. It should be based on what defines a disease or a choice.
Is Addiction a Disease?
According to Webster’s dictionary a disease is defined as a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific signs or symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury.
Given that drugs alter structure and function of a specific location (the brain) and isn’t a direct result of physical injury, addiction is a disease. Feel free to disagree if your interpretation of Webster’s definition is different than mine. I’d love to read your input in the comments. If your interpretation is the same then it’s hard to argue with a dictionary.
Is Addiction a Choice?
According to Webster’s dictionary a choice is defined as an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.
Based on this definition addiction is a choice because it’s always a possibility to not use drugs. Even though it’s always a possibility, outside influences can contribute to someones decision to use. An example is in the movie Training Day a cop holds a gun to his partners head telling him to use drugs then fires him for refusing to influence his decision making. He ends up using drugs which was a choice, but should he be ashamed for making that choice?
I’m not saying every addict has a gun held to their head, but a lot of addicts start using at a young age. Before the age of 25 decision making is primarily processed through the amygdala (emotional center of the brain). This makes adolescents more prone to outside influences than adults. This is why statutory rape laws exist, even the government recognizes adolescents are vulnerable to outside influences. A lot of addicts and alcoholics started using or drinking at a young age. It’s extremely rare for a 26+ year old to decide to take a drug or drink for the first time in their life. As a result of using drugs at a young age, they damage and inhibit growth of the frontal cortex where logical decisions are made. This can cause them to continue using drugs past the age of 25.
Outside influences that trigger an adolescent to use drugs can include, but are not limited to:
- Suffering from a undiagnosed mental condition they’re self-medicating
- Being bullied and/or neglected by peers and seeking to fit in
- Having family who uses drugs or drinks
- Experiencing abuse and neglect at home
- A traumatic event shaping their personality at a young age
- Being poorly educated by the current drug education system
- Being prescribed controlled substances
The list goes on. Sure kids have a choice in whether or not they use drugs, but should they be shamed for that choice? No more than if a 14 year old girl chooses to sleep with a 40 year old man. The difference with addiction, as stated earlier, is if they use addictive drugs at a young age they’re likely to continue using in adulthood as a result of the structure and function alteration of the brain. When you see a 30 year old addict, it’s likely a result of a decision they made when they were an adolescent. I personally believe they should never be shamed but encouraged that there’s a way out.
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Philip Markoff (Associate of Science) is an online influencer and thought leader on addiction education; he is known as his alias “CG Kid” who’s obtained a large audience primarily on YouTube as a vlogger and journalist. His current sobriety date from polysubstance chemical dependency is June 9th, 2013.