The Most Hated Disease
When it comes to disease most people would do anything they could to help the ones they love. Nearly all medically recognized diseases garner a great deal of support from family and friends. I have seen heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in my own family, and I have seen the support surrounding those who have suffered the ravages of these diseases. There is a disease however that frequently repels support. A disease so hated, so misunderstood, that there is little to no support for many; some sufferers are outright abandoned by those closest to them. This dreaded disease, recognized both medically and psychologically, is addiction.
With other diseases, if you have symptoms of a heart attack, a lump with a family history of cancer, or dizzy spells from diabetes, it is known that you should get to the hospital immediately. This is basic to the understanding and care of these diseases. Failure to address these symptoms can literally be fatal. As family and friends, we would support anyone to urgently get the help they need. This is not the same with substance use.
With substance users the shame is so strong, that when the symptomology of their disease presents itself, the symptoms are hidden, even lied about. We as supports often urge those suffering from addiction to simply “tell us the truth” but in our behaviors, we send a mixed message. When addicts and alcoholics do tell others the truth, that they want to use, that they’re craving, or that they relapsed, it is met with judgment “Don’t be stupid,” “How could you think of using,” “I can’t believe you used again,” and a general message of “What is wrong with you,” “You’re so selfish,” is sent. It is learned very quickly that those around them can’t handle the truth. They can’t handle the reality that addiction comes with cravings, urges, relapses, etc. and so the addicts and alcoholics you love and care about learn to smile and say “Everything is fine.” They say this while they’re dying inside, and often times they do it to make things easier for their loved ones, not easier for themselves.
Imagine if we did the same to grandpa with his heart attack, grandma with her diabetes, or to our spouses with a lump? Imagine if they were so afraid of telling us that they were showing the symptoms of a heart attack, cancer, or diabetic complication? The cost would be unimaginable…even fatal. Imagine grandpa worrying that he was selfish if he told you that he had a crushing pain in his chest and shooting pain in his arm? Imagine Grandpa waking up in the hospital after a heart attack to find no one there for him because of his selfishness? He did eat all those cheeseburgers after all. This is exactly what we do to addicts and alcoholics every day. We would rather hear that they have no problems, no symptoms, and we want that so that we can feel emotionally safe. So WE don’t have to worry.
The more you understand addiction the more it helps to realize that it is a disease about the loss of control. Telling people to control themselves with a disease that sidesteps control is like telling your diabetic grandfather to stop being so weak and to control his pancreas with his mind. It’s not going to happen. Addiction kills people in the power of its secrecy, and it is often hidden away because it is not often allowed a place out in the open.
If we want the truth from addicts and alcoholics then we need to first start by being honest with ourselves. We are uncomfortable with the reality of addiction, with its power, and we have severe anxiety when we see the symptoms of this disease. If we as supports have that much fear and anxiety then how much does an addict have? If you want an addict to control themselves then we as a society need to control ourselves. We need to see addiction for the disease that it is as opposed to the antiquated belief that it is a character flaw or moral defect. That flawed belief is what pushes addiction into secrecy, it is what shames our loved ones into lying about the reality of their lives.
If you have symptoms of a heart attack, cancer, or diabetes tell someone and get help immediately. The sooner you get help the better. If you have cravings, urges, or used drugs last night the solution is the same. Tell someone and get help immediately. The sooner you get help the better. If you are too worried about what others may think about any of these diseases then maybe you don’t have the right supports.
Addiction is taking our loved ones with each passing day. We don’t need more tough love… we need more empathetic accountability, honesty, access, and a place for substance users to freely talk about their symptoms. 90% of active users do not seek help. One of the most common reasons I have heard from my clients that they have taken so long to get into treatment is because ”I didn’t want others to think less of me.”
Please take care of yourself regardless of others.
-Blaine Linton LADC, CCS