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Every living thing in the world relies on addiction to stay alive. This is a ridiculous statement if you consider what addiction means to people these days. Technically, the addiction center in your brain is what keeps you from doing things that can harm you, by urging you and rewarding you for doing “beneficial things” like eating, sports, or watching the entire series of Star Trek.

Becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs takes things to a whole new level. It comes to a point where the lines between it being a choice and it being a disease blurs. So, is it a disease or a choice?

Is Drug Addiction a Disease?

According to physicians, addiction specialists and psychologists, drug addiction changes a person’s body and mind. If a condition changes the body’s normal state and induces negative effects, then it’s a disease.

Addiction causes a change in the body’s natural chemistry. One such case is when our bodies undergo withdrawal. The body’s effort to rebalance its chemistry and detoxify causes stress on the body and the brain that it causes symptoms like shivering, headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. This lasts for at least a week and could go as long as six months.

Withdrawal is not the only effect. Another sever effect of addiction is the near-permanent change in your brain’s wiring. The brain has an “If you don’t use it, lose it,” function. If the brain doesn’t use a certain function long enough, the brain shuts it down. How it relates to drugs is rather horrible.

For example, you take a drug that induces pleasure, your brain gets flooded with chemicals that mimic feel-good chemicals. Your brain is then led to believe that it has abundant feel-good chemicals and chooses not to make any more. The brain does this to maintain chemical balance in the brain. In an effort to keep that balance, it also releases chemicals that counteract the feel-good chemicals.

If the flow of drugs is constant, the brain will keep shutting the part that creates feel-good chemicals and keeps the anti-feel good chemicals flowing. Eventually, following the “If you don’t use it, lose it,” rule, the parts that make the feel-good chemicals will shut down for good.

This means the user won’t feel good with anything but the drug or its derivatives. The brain won’t release feel-good chemicals anymore, dooming the person’s happiness. The effect can be reversed, but it’s not an easy nor inexpensive solution.

Why is addiction considered a disease? The answer is because it causes negative changes in the body.

Is Addiction a Mental Disease?

A question that should also be asked is “why is an addiction so hard to overcome?” The answer there is because the brain has rewired or reprogrammed itself to adapt to the drug. For example, when a person indulges on alcohol and sees that getting blackout drunk helps forget about the woes of the world. The brain recognizes this as an efficient way to relieve mental stress.

Of course, this causes unwanted effects such as nasty hangovers, but if the person has enough drive to get drunk again, the brain will attempt to adapt to this mental stress relief because it’s effective. When the brain finds something it likes, it always tries to defend it. If someone antagonizes the person’s habit, the subconscious will attempt to protect the habit. This causes the person to justify that the habit is beneficial or avoid the person antagonizing the habit.

If it sounds as if the person has no control over it, that’s correct. Addiction changes a person’s behavior for the worse. The repetitive substance intake and actions to protect it, get ingrained in the brain, cementing ideas such as “I can’t function without it,” “Everything feels dull without it,” or “Withdrawal is horrible and I want to avoid it.”

An uncontrollable behavioral change is something that can be labeled as a mental disease.

Is It a Choice?

One other question people could have about addicts is if they chose to be one. One thing that should be clear is that partaking in drugs or alcohol will not automatically make you an addict. Though it’s an idea that keeps people off drugs, it’s false. The reality is that there are many factors outside the drug itself that causes the addiction.

Some of the common drivers are as follows:

  • A reliable source of the substance

People can’t consume drugs or alcohol if there’s no way to get them. Outside of illegal distribution of drugs, people can still get supplies of a possibly addictive substance through proper methods like a doctor’s prescription for pain pills. As long as someone is of legal drinking age and has the cash for it, getting alcohol is about as easy as getting a soda.

  • Unaddressed stressors and trigger

There could be a ton of these. It could be a highly stressful career where the person’s very livelihood hangs in the balance, or an irate spouse due to an unsolved problem, or something as simple as pain. The stressor is often constant, enough to make the person repeat the substance abuse to relieve themselves

  • Individuals who promote or enable substance use

These can be friends, family or even acquaintances, so long as the person listens to them. Promoters are people who push the substance to you, like a group of friends pressuring you to go on a binge drink. The fact is that it stops there. A promoter only affects the addict if they are present.

Enablers are worse. These are the people that give a person a reason, (rational or not) to take in the substance. Enablers allow an addict to take drugs, even if the person is quitting. One such example is if a person is quitting, goes into a state of desperation and appeals to the enabler. The enabler caves and allows the quitting addict to take in their substance, completely destroying the quitting process.

Enablers are also people who take responsibility for the addict. This can be in the form of telling an addict’s employer that they are sick, without saying that it’s because of the drugs. It can also be someone who bails them out of jail or someone who simply rationalizes their bad habits. They make it appear that the addiction doesn’t have that much consequence.

Put these three drivers together and you’ll very likely become an addict. It even doesn’t have to be drugs. These drivers apply to any substance or activity that provides a sense of escape.

If addiction was a choice, then the only time it was a choice was when the person learned of the substance and took it. Since addiction has several drivers, we can consider that the entire process is not a choice but a culmination of several factors.

Is It Genetic? Is it Hereditary?

At some point, it was debated whether behaviors can be passed down to the next generation. If someone was ill-tempered and irate, would their offspring be the same? It’s a debate of nature versus nurture, but does it apply to addiction?

Yes, on both ends. On the nature part, there have been studies that suggest addiction to be written in our DNA. Addiction is part of the survival mechanisms that keep us alive as a species. If it’s good for us, we stick to it, plain and simple. We even have a specific place in our brain that controls addiction, which turns our likes to wants, then wants to needs. According to the study, which was conducted mainly on twins, when one twin succumbed to addiction, the other twin was 80% likely to fall into addiction.

On the nurture part, growing children have the natural instinct to copy their parents. Even if the behavior is frowned upon, the behavior will eventually imprint on the child’s mind and when they grow up and have no one to stop their impulses, they could follow the pattern they learned before and follow it. In some cases, it’s subconsciously learned and the child grows up without noticing it in their behavior.

Is It a Disability?

Though addiction’s effects can be debilitating, hindering someone’s ability to live a normal life, it is not a disability, at least according to Social Security. In terms of getting disability benefits, being addicted to something will not earn you any recognition. However, if your addiction has caused permanent, irreversible damage that hinders your normal life, they may give you disability benefits.

Effects such as permanent liver, heart and lung damage can be considered a disability. Behavioral changes and withdrawal effects, however, are not included. In some states and countries, you cannot get disability benefits at all, even with permanent damage, due to the government not recognizing that drug addiction is a disease.

Is it a Disease or a Choice?

The answer is both. It is the person’s own will to take their first taste. No matter what the temptation or drive, a small percent of the action still depends on the person’s choice. When the drivers set in and the factors become constant, the choice disappears. With stressors and triggers driving the person to seek escape, withdrawal keeping them from stopping, sources providing the substance, and promoters and enablers giving justification, there’s just little room for choice.

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