Addiction as a disease still in question today
By Steve Wildsmith | (email@example.com)
Are addiction and alcoholism diseases?
After all this time, that question still divides people. I found myself thinking a lot about it this week in the wake of the trial of Michael Ryan Cody.
Cody was acquitted of criminally negligent homicide in the 2010 death of 10-week-old Braylee Luttrell. After drinking and smoking marijuana with members of Braylee’s family late one night, Cody and his then-girlfriend fell asleep on the family’s couch. He was awakened early the next morning, having apparently sleepwalked into the nursery, where he crawled into the crib where Braylee slept. The child was dead, and the lives of both Cody and the Luttrells were forever changed.
Facts were presented, and the jury decided Cody was not guilty. The Daily Times coverage generated some passionate online comments, including one from a certain reader who, although not present the night the tragedy occurred and, to my knowledge, unfamiliar with both Cody and the Luttrells, weighed in with the following assessment: “People who do drugs are, themselves, bad people. They should always be held responsible for acts they choose to commit. Drug addiction should not be an escape hatch. It is not a disease.”
Needless to say, that statement disturbed me a great deal, both for its ignorance of the nature of addiction and those who suffer from it.
I offer this disclaimer: I know Michael Cody very well. I didn’t know him back then, but I imagine that his past is a lot like mine, meaning that when he used both drugs and alcohol, he wasn’t exactly a pleasant individual. When I tell my wife stories of my time spent as an active drug addict, she usually says, “I’m really glad I didn’t know you back then.” All addicts have pasts, much of it sordid and ugly, and unless they choose to reveal that past, most recovering addicts can move on with their lives without the majority of the world knowing the details.
Some, like myself, choose to reveal such details; others face consequences from crimes they commit; others, like Michael, have to deal with public scrutiny and judgment because their decisions led to unimaginable consequences and, in this case, tragedy.
Here’s the thing about addicts in recovery: Regardless of the opinion of the above commenter, we don’t seek to escape responsibility for our decisions and actions while under the influence. One of the core tenets of a 12-Step recovery program is that while we’re not responsible for being an addict, we most certainly are responsible for owning up to our actions, making amends for the harm we cause, facing consequences for what we’ve done and striving to become better people.
The nature of addiction as a disease is an insidious one. On one hand, it’s an illness brought on by our own decisions and actions: After all, we choose to ingest drugs and alcohol, which kick-starts whatever process in our brain, the exact nature of which is still undiscovered by science, sends us down the dark road upon which we find ourselves. At some point, even though with a monumental effort we can choose to stop using, addiction destroys our ability to make rational decisions, and we find ourselves caught in the grips of a cycle that pushes us to do things we never dreamed we were capable of.
Is addiction a disease? I could write a dissertation on the topic, and we’d still come no closer to a definitive answer. Some people, like the above gentleman, will never accept that postulation, despite it being recognized as such by nearly every major medical organization in the world. I do know this, however: At no point in my youth did I daydream about becoming a junkie. I didn’t romance heroin and Oxycontin and think, “Man, that sounds awesome. I think I’ll become a drug addict.” And at no point in my addiction, when the desperate fingers of darkness clawed at the fevered recesses of my brain, did I think, “Hey, stealing from my parents and pawning my girlfriend’s jewelry is fantastic! I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces when they find out! It’ll be great!”
You can infer two things from that: Either addicts are soulless monsters who have no regard for the health, wellbeing and happiness of general society and their loved ones and do harm with complete disregard; or they’re sick people in the grips of an illness over which they have little control once they’ve crossed a threshold from use and abuse to addiction.
Some choose to believe the former. I feel for them, because their strict black-and-white view of the world no doubt means that they’ve never felt the agony of watching a loved one deal with addiction … or else they’ve been so scarred by a loved one’s addiction that they can’t forgive, accept and understand. They’re entitled to their views, and I can only pray they’ll never have to experience the devastation of addiction in their own lives or the lives of family members. It’s not pretty, and it’s certainly not a learning curve I’d wish on anyone.
I will, however, argue most vehemently and heatedly the assertion that “people who do drugs are, themselves, bad people.” I am not. Michael Cody is not. The majority of folks I know who did drugs at one time but are striving to better themselves today are most certainly not. Were we at one time? Most certainly. But neither are we using our disease as an excuse to get away with anything, to forget about anything, to absolve ourselves of anything.
Like so many others who are involved in horrible events in their addiction, Michael Cody will live with the memory of what happened for the rest of his days. Such a tragedy is not something he’ll forget, nor will the result of the jury’s decision that it was all a tragic accident absolve him of the heavy heart he’ll always have when he thinks of that night. And there will be times, no doubt, when he looks in the mirror and asks himself if such an assessment as the one offered above is true.
I can assure you, it is not. We are not bad people. We’re sick people, and I’m grateful that I have a program today that offers me an opportunity to get better. I’m grateful to know a man like Michael, and I’m grateful that he now has the opportunity to move forward with his life — never forgetting what happened, and using it as a way to better himself, help others and be a responsible, productive member of society.
Steve Wildsmith is a recovering addict and the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or at 981-1144.