What You Should Know Before You Say 'Addiction Is a Choice'


They say: Addiction is a choice and you should just stop.

I do not understand the belief held by some that one chooses to become addicted. If addiction is defined as a compulsion to do something or behave a certain way repetitiously regardless of the negative consequences, I find little logic in anyone doing this by choice. Especially if it interferes with the well being of one’s life or hurts the ones we love.

My education and experience tells me addiction doesn’t start out as an act beyond our control. It begins in a slow, progressive notion and we often don’t even recognize its enormous growth until well beyond the awareness of many of those around us. Which, for a time at least, we will adamantly deny.

At first, we try something meant to give us a pleasurable experience and we enjoy the way it makes us feel. We like the giddiness of that first glass of wine after a stress filled day, or that rush of excitement in a winning hand at blackjack. And then we do it again and achieve the same results. And eventually, like it enough to create meaning around it. 

We organize birthday barbecues and football parties where consuming large amounts of alcohol is an acceptable way to “celebrate” the occasion. We plan “family” trips to Vegas yet don’t see the outside of those dark walls for days because we are one step away from hitting the jackpot.  Euphoria and fulfillment and the broken promise of happily ever after are just beyond our reach.

We ignore the onlookers who frown at our behaviors and we discount their judgment as simply not knowing how to “have fun” or live on the edge. What we don’t realize is our behaviors have stopped being “fun” long ago, and we are wickedly close to falling off the edge, but we are forever chasing that euphoric feeling that swept us off our feet in the honeymoon phase of our distorted relationship with addiction.

What we also fail to recognize in our blindness of addiction is that not only are we continuing to do it because of the the way it makes us feel, we are equally doing it for the way it makes us not feel.  Research is only growing about addictions being a common yet detrimental escape from the unwelcomed experiences of our past. An incomplete mourning for the loss of something or someone meaningful to us that subsequently changes the direction of our life path.

An unexpected death of a close family member or friend, a difficult divorce, an unwanted move or loss of a job can all take considerable chunks of well being out of a previously unscathed being. These adverse experiences can happen in our childhood or as an adult and can weaken our whole existence and life motivation. Especially when those around us are equally effected and unable to help mend our pain because of their own.

It is of no surprise anxiety and depression frequently intertwine in the tumultuous relationship with addiction. And so begins the infinite cycle of turning to our addictions to numb the pain, which further inflames the anxiety of our choices and fuels our depressed state of being. Only causing us to turn toward our addiction all the more.

Soon we learn to escape our fears and insecurities with our addiction because we feel forcefully giddy and excited about what we are doing at that moment that brings us pleasure. And we create misconceptions — that somehow we will achieve ultimate satisfaction and perpetual happiness. Or at least we won’t think about the pain. At least not today.

Eventually this relationship with addiction evolves from giving pleasure and avoiding pain to becoming a necessary evil to merely exist. The compulsion sets in and our minds become fixated on our unquenchable urge for that next drink. Oftentimes, our bodies develop a physical dependence we can no longer ignore. So we drink to stop our hands from shaking. We do it to feel “normal” again, at least enough to function in our daily routine. We gamble away that last dollar to suffice the unattainable desire to double our wins. To win back that lost tax return that was meant to pay our mortgage. To get back that feeling of euphoric satisfaction and enjoyment we felt when we first met our addiction.

In the end and without help beyond ourselves, addiction overpowers us with a curse that becomes so strong, nothing and no one in our own innately selfish-driven world can stop us from it. Not our spouses, our children, our parents, our failing health or our careers. Not one thing can stand between our addiction and our mind. We have succumbed to a curse that is larger than us and it becomes stronger than our ability to make any choice to stop. We stand to lose it all and that still might not be enough to stop the insanity. The curse destroys all that was good in our lives and renders us hopeless for a better tomorrow.

Therefore, what they should say…

Addiction is a disease that needs help to recover.

According to multiple health reports published within the National Institute of Drug Abuse and Harvard Health Publications, researchers now recognize addiction as a chronic and reoccurring disease that changes both neurological brain structure and overall cognitive function. This transformation happens as the brain experiences a series of chemical changes, beginning with recognition of pleasure and the lessening of its effect with continued use of that which once gave us enjoyment, and ending with a drive toward compulsive behaviors attempting  to sustain it.

What we once found to be pleasurable in its infancy is altered within our brains to result in a compulsion for utter destruction in the part of our brain we rely on for emotion and pleasure. Our brain is no longer functioning the same way as before we became addicted. So we act on our compulsions because pleasure becomes impossible without intensifying our addictive tendencies.

This alteration in our brain and resulting compulsion is real, and when intermingled with the weakening grip on our addiction and all that once had meaning in our lives, it destroys. And it knows no social, racial or economic barriers.  It can creep into the least expecting community, impact whole cultures and span multiple generations.  Whether it be personally impactful, or through the far reaching ripple effect that results because of it. Ultimately, no one escapes unharmed. Addiction is that strong.

But there can be hope. Hope that there can be change.

To say addiction is a choice and not a disease that needs help is only further perpetuating the stigma that has carried on for decades, and for many, has contributed to loss of time spent having a life worth living. Or worse, of living any life at all.

Recognizing addiction as a potentially life threatening disease that requires continuous effort to recover successfully can allow us to make a much needed paradigm shift in our morally judgmental way of thinking. And to dispel the assumption that all those who suffer continue to do so by their own choosing, can begin to awaken the possibility that recovery exists. But it can not be done without a sincere commitment to end the stigma that at times prevents many from venturing toward the narrow path of healing.

I believe this commitment may include reaching beyond the current treatment models with floundering success rates and incorporating additional unorthodox and holistic methods that are slowly gaining more acceptance in the professional recovery communities. We can begin to focus on tailored recovery modalities because no longer can we assume that the traditional ways will always work for everyone.

My personal and still very raw experience with addiction and recovery has yet to be shared, but there is no doubt in my forever recovering mind the addiction that was in my path was not there by any ounce of my own choosing. My path to destruction came upon me as the horrific and overpowering curse that it was and mentally stole a mother from her children for 18 months of their lives I can never get back. It rendered me helpless for weeks on end and ultimately ended the career I had spent 15 years building for the person I mistakingly thought I wanted to be. It swallowed my joy and buried deep into my unconscious mind all that I once loved. It changed the unscathed child I yearned to be and morphed me into a monstrous entity my conscious mind will never want to know. 

Regardless of what society continues to say about addiction, my personal truth will always be I didn’t willingly choose addiction. Rather the disease of addiction chose me. And it was only through the brokenness of my entire being and the insanity of my disastrous mind that I found the miraculous help and saving grace that gave me strength to overcome my addiction that almost became stronger than my will to survive.

This post originally appeared on Kel’s Penzu

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