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Understanding Addiction: Getting Beyond Myths and Misinformation

Today, when the opioid crisis has reached epidemic levels, we hear a great deal about addiction.

Nevertheless, misinformation and myths abound, making it difficult for many people to comprehend the true nature of addiction. When it comes to understanding addiction, a good place to start is with the American Society of Addictive Medicine (ASAM) definition:

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.”

A key word here is primary, meaning that it arises on its own, as opposed to a secondary disease, which is caused by a previous ailment. Unfortunately, addiction is commonly misunderstood as arising from a moral failing or behavioral problem. Therefore, it’s critical to recognize that medical experts have determined that addiction is its own illness and not the fault of some existing condition.

An equally important element of the ASAM definition is the word “chronic.” This is, perhaps, easier to grasp because we all know someone who suffers from or, may ourselves suffer from, a chronic disease, like asthma or diabetes.

“Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission,” the ASAM definition states. So, again, the common assumption that relapses are the result of a moral failing or a symptom of poor willpower, is in fact a misconception. The American College of Physicians has called for addiction to be treated like other treatable, chronic medical conditions, which, in many cases, involve lifelong care.

We don’t blame people with asthma when they have a relapse, and we don’t expect people with diabetes to be fully cured. We recognize that these are diseases that can be successfully treated, but that, even when they are in remission, they can return. Because addiction changes the chemistry of the brain, it too is a chronic disease that often requires a series of treatments before an individual enters into recovery.

It is crucial for families and friends to understand addiction for what it is, so that they can help their loved one get the treatment they need. “Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death,” the ASAM definition states.

While there is much to fear when it comes to addiction, there is also good reason for optimism. Addiction actually has better treatment outcomes than many other chronic conditions. Evidence shows that individuals in recovery can manage their disease and live fulfilling lives.

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