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FIRST PERSON: Addiction is an illness, not a choice

It’s fair to say I have some experience with drugs. For 2 years I was addicted to crack. Actually that’s not really accurate, I’m still addicted to crack, I just happen to have been clean for 7 years. Make no mistake though, if I took drugs today I’d almost certainly take them tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that. I’m an addict and addiction never goes away, the very best you can hope for is that each day you wake up and go to bed without succumbing to your addiction during the hours in-between.

Regular readers of my work will know that I suffer from depression. Over the last couple of years I’ve been at pains to point out to people that depression is an illness. Chances are that you already know this. You are a hip, happening and intelligent person that reads articles on websites such as this one. Sadly you’d be surprised how many people don’t have your wisdom. They think it’s as simple as waking up one day and telling yourself to be happy. Oh if only it was. Sadly, my experience tells me that a great many more people think of addiction that way. That people choose to be addicted to drugs or alcohol. Let’s make it clear right now, addiction is an illness. Nobody chooses to be addicted to drugs. They may choose to try drugs that first time but they certainly don’t choose to be powerless over them.

I’ve seen people say online that they have no sympathy for people who die from an overdose or from drug related conditions, horrified that someone could chose to take drugs whilst being a young mother or that despite being a world renowned celebrity they felt the need to take drugs. That displays zero understanding of how addiction works. It’s as ludicrous as saying someone chose to catch a cold despite having young children. I assure you that being a mother would have zero impact on how powerless someone would be to the hold of drug addiction.

As an addict myself I did some pretty horrific things. I stole money from my family to feed my habit. I went months without talking to them, even when my father was ill in hospital. Do you not think the same thing could be said of me? ‘How could he continue to take drugs when his dad was ill?’ Well, the answer is because I was ill myself. Such was my depression I did anything I could to make each day even slightly more bearable. I started by over eating, I tried my hand at drinking, I gambled, I spent money I didn’t have so I could have the shiniest gadgets and the newest things. Then I took drugs. I hated myself every single day for being an addict. I felt that I should be stronger and that I should be able to handle it. I realise now just how powerless I was. The fact I am clean isn’t some show of strength on my part. It’s down to being fortunate enough to have a wonderfully supportive family and a fair amount of good luck. Nothing more.

Lastly, there’s that notion of sympathy. ‘I’ve got no sympathy for him/her’ or ‘I’ll save my sympathy for someone more deserving.’  Russell Brand recently summed it up well: sympathy isn’t a finite resource. You won’t ever run out. You can be sympathetic for anyone, you don’t have to pick and choose, or rate people on who is more deserving of it. If you have no sympathy for someone who suffered from a life threatening illness, then that probably says a lot more about you than about the person who was crippled by addiction.

It’s frightening just how much we criminalise addiction in society. We should be treating addicts as victims rather than criminals. They are suffering from an illness that doesn’t care how rich you are, or how powerful and successful you are. And like depression, it certainly doesn’t care how great your life might be.

If you don’t understand addiction then consider yourself fortunate. It likely means you haven’t encountered it. Those that have will certainly understand why the public’s perception on such matters needs to be altered. I am lucky to be here now writing this, I don’t expect sympathy for my condition but perhaps empathy may be a good place to start.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article or in the comments below, are not those held by CALM or its Trustees unless stated, and liability cannot be accepted for such comments. We encourage friendly and constructive debate, but please don't share personal contact details when commenting and exercise caution when considering any advice offered by others. We don’t allow abusive, offensive or inappropriate comments or comments that could be interpreted as libellous, defamatory or commercial and we will remove these without warning as and when we find them.

3 Responses to this article

  1. I think it might be the weakness thing again. If people see you as week,that you have just “given in” to drugs or alcohol,rather than being stronger and more in control,then by definition we are week and less deserving of compassion or empathy. Also,I think that people assume that it’s about having choice. But I think that some of us do actually choose a destructive path because our lives are so fucked up by things beyond our control,that at the time we just don’t think that it could be any worse no matter what we do.

    Phil Levi 16th August 2014 at 7:31 am
  2. You are so right about the criminalisation of addiction. That criminalisation in so many cases is actually what ruins lives.

    I have seen the same criminalisation happen to people in the midst of crisis as a result mental ill health – the police are called out for a criminal, not a therapist called out for a person in need of help.

    We need to change the way we deal with mental health and blogs like yours will do that. Please keep speaking out!

    Charlotte2012 14th April 2015 at 8:09 pm

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