Picture, if you will, someone you cherish.
Perhaps it’s your spouse, or your child, or a parent. Maybe it’s a beloved coworker or a lifelong friend.
Now imagine they come to you and confide that they think they have cancer. What would be your reaction?
Assuming you love this individual, chances are good you’ll react with shock, dread, sorrow and fear. On the heels of those emotions, you would probably be motivated to action, and you’ll assail them with a litany of questions.
What are their symptoms? Have they consulted a physician? Have they made an appointment for tests? What are they doing to address the problem? Furthermore, what can you do to help?
Maybe they feel hopeless or helpless. Perhaps they tell you they can’t afford to seek help or treatment because of financial constraints. Immediately, you begin to consider all of the ways to address those hurdles. Maybe you begin to take up a collection at work, or set up a GoFundMe page online, writing a heartfelt plea about your loved one’s condition. Maybe you begin to call up other friends or relatives and begin to discuss ways to get them the help that they need.
Whatever you choose to do, you’re all in, because your loved one is suffering and needs assistance — financial, medical and emotional. Most people are fundamentally decent individuals, I still believe, who ascribe to the belief that we take care of our own, and depending on how much this person means to you, you’ll likely do everything in your power to walk with them through this crisis in hopes of a resolution that returns them to health and happiness.
Now replace “cancer” with “addiction.” Would your response still be the same?
Granted, there are often extenuating circumstances that may affect how you feel. Cancer patients don’t hurt or steal from or lie to the people who care about them the most, but those circumstances don’t mitigate the fact — and yes, it is indeed a fact — that addiction is a disease. Every health professional on the planet acknowledges it as such, and it meets the diagnostic criteria for an illness, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, addicts who see treatment aren’t bad people trying to be good; they’re sick people trying to get well.
Despite these facts, there’s still an overwhelming stigma attached to addiction that often brings out an ugly, visceral side of humanity that’s truly disgusting to behold. Consider some of the social media comments on a WBIR-TV story about four South Knox County residents a day receiving the anti-overdose drug Naloxone:
• “Maybe just let nature take its course.”
• “What a waste of money.”
• “Stop calling 911.”
• “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”
• “I have no sympathy at all for ignorant drug users.”
These and other comments demonstrate that many people think of addicts not as sick individuals, but as drug-crazed criminals who are a danger to the community. I find it fascinating that on the same day WBIR posted that story, I took part in an online lecture by “The Biology of Addiction,” presented by the nonprofit group the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, which went into painstaking detail about the actual biological changes that take place in the brain when addictive drugs are introduced into the body.
It was an eye-opening seminar that was, during many points, over my head, and I’ve spent the last several days educating myself on the nature of neurotransmitters and opioid receptors and dopamine levels just to digest everything that was discussed. And when it was done, I switched over to Facebook for a few minutes, and immediately lost my appetite upon reading comments by “Sue,” whose profession is childcare, and “Randy,” who owns his own tree-trimming service, declaring that addiction is a choice and that addicts need to be left to die.
Look, I get it. And I know I write about this particular subject so often that one column tends to blur into the next at times. But until we begin to acknowledge that perhaps this addiction thing is a little more complex and a little more complicated than people like “Sue” and “Randy” are capable to grasping on the surface, then we’re not doing a damn thing to help those afflicted.
Addiction isn’t going anywhere. Even if we adapted the most Draconian measures imaginable and “let nature take its course,” as one person so glibly commented, it’s still going to be a societal problem. Why? Because it’s an illness, not a moral deficiency. And until we direct the same amount of compassion toward addicts that we do toward cancer sufferers, we’re not going to make any headway in treating it as a legitimate disease deserving of the same treatment and care as any other.