Is addiction really a disease?

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The Soapbox
Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn

I find it fascinating when a current event, particularly one that is unanimously agreed upon as being cause for public concern nationally, somehow creates spin-off controversies smashing momentary solidarity into a million heated versions of “opinion turned into fact”-style debates, once again rebalancing our divided population. I suppose that the arguments and chaos are necessary ingredients for any free society to achieve progress.

With that said, let’s get started with some of the actual facts… And they’re staggering.

  • Heroin/opiate overdoses killed more Americans last year than all of the soldiers we lost during the Vietnam War.
  • Heroin/opiate overdoses are the No. 1 killer of Americans under the age of 50.
  • The Sackler family, owners of Purdue pharmaceuticals known for developing OxyContin, made the Top 20 on Forbes’s list of wealthiest American families last year at No. 16.
  • 3 out of 4 heroin addicts begin using opiates with prescription pills AND 30 percent of patients that are prescribed opiate based pain killers for thirty one days or more get addicted to heroin.

Houston, we certainly have a problem. Agreed? Good. There’s that moment of solidarity I mentioned. Now for the part where I imagine Donald Trump in a wrestling ring with a pair of clippers shouting, “Let’s Get Ready To Ruummbbllee!”

Is addiction really a disease?

Despite how polarizing this question seems to be, the truth is, I don’t know. I hope to, however, share with you what I do know based on my personal experiences in an effort to clean up some of the misconceptions and ambiguities that are slithering around, well, just about everywhere I look lately.

So, to qualify myself a bit, I am an addict and among other drugs, opiate abuse is a part of my resume. I also have been to rehab and have spent considerable time as an active member of Narcotics Anonymous.

So the first time I was introduced to the concept of addiction being a disease was in 2009 at an N.A. meeting shortly after leaving rehab for the first time. Like most people, I was a skeptic. But in all fairness, I was skeptical of N.A. in general … Were they a cult, could I actually stop using? Fortunately I was so desperate that I didn’t have it in me to be skeptical, so I stayed and listened.

Narcotics Anonymous is an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous, which are known sometimes as 12-step fellowships or recovery programs.

As I went to a meeting a day every day for the first few months, what I found was that addiction certainly didn’t discriminate. People from all races, upbringings, religions, etc., could potentially be affected and we all seemed to have some of the symptoms. The best way I can describe this now is not being okay with one’s self and having an exaggerated sense of self. Because these precursors can’t be tied to any common denominator among addicts, the “Anonymous programs” believe that these symptoms are caused by a disease. Back to that in a moment.

In an entirely different arena we have the psychiatric community and healthcare industry. Psychiatrists identified substance abuse/addiction as a disease via the DSM-IV a few years back. With admittedly little education this seems to be tied to the FDA and health insurance companies as a way to regulate and, dare I say, profit from addiction remedies. I can’t help but think of when having indigestion turned into acid reflux disease.

Aside from the medical community’s need to classify substance abuse issues, which I don’t think are the crux of most people’s emotionality on the topic, I’m left to consider what I’ve heard and seen through my time in N.A. Here’s my conclusion

Either addiction is a not-yet found trait hidden in our DNA and is a disease in the traditional sense; or every person that becomes an addict has one of the many mental illnesses, whether genetic like bipolarity, or nurture-oriented, like PTSD, as an untreated precursor to this inevitable, not chosen, plague.

I look forward to your opinions and hope to be a part of the dialogue as your comments come in. (And we are all people after all so let’s keep it above the belt, thank you.)

Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? Submissions to The Soapbox are welcome and encouraged. Just email your submission to, subject line: The Soapbox.


David Shaw is a proud single dad that enjoys writing for stage, film, and articles that focus on mental health issues, addiction, music, and personal finance.