A Disease, But...

By William Moyers

November 8, 2014 5 min read

For years, I've argued the science of addiction. In layman's terms, that translates to, "Addiction is a chronic disease." And it is. But I'm rethinking how I argue it, based on the results of a groundbreaking survey that seeks to define the question, "What is recovery?"

That question was put to 9,341 people by the Alcohol Research Group. The nationwide survey was funded by the National Institutes of Health and took four years. It's being billed as the largest and most comprehensive study ever involving people from diverse pathways to recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. The results were published this past week. Among the revelations, people in recovery believe:

Abstinence is king. No alcohol at all, no misuse of prescribed medications and no use of unprescribed drugs.

The essentials of recovery start with honesty and include getting along with friends and family, taking care of mental health, changing the way of thinking through challenges, hanging out with others who don't drink or take drugs, and living in an environment that doesn't include dangerous substances.

Inner strength and inner peace go hand in hand to building resiliency in recovery, as does self-esteem.

Spirituality ranks as high as abstinence when it comes to defining what it means to recover. This includes "being grateful" and "giving back."

To me, the most provocative results come in a subheading titled "Uncommon Elements of Recovery." Sixty-four percent said that recovery also means no smoking or use of tobacco products. And 43 percent said recovery can include "non-problematic alcoholic or drug use." Yep. Nicotine is a drug that gets in the way of recovery, a majority believes. At the same time, a sizable minority believes it is possible to use substances and still claim recovery. Hmm...

The surveyors add an important footnote. The formula for coming up with the numbers includes elements of gauging recovery that respondents acknowledge are important to other people they know in recovery, "even though it didn't apply to them personally." In other words, what works for one may not work for another, but as long as it helps someone to recover, then so be it. There is no one size shoe that fits all, nor is there one style of shoe that everyone must wear.

So how do I view the survey?

First, it doesn't change my view that this is a chronic illness. Just look at a PET scan or an MRI. What we see is that the brains of addicts and alcoholics respond to and process substances markedly differently than the vast majority of brains in the population. That is a fact. A lack of willpower or moral fiber has nothing to do with losing control of substances or craving them. Neurobiology does not lie.

But no longer will I say simply that "addiction is a chronic disease" and expect people to understand, much less agree. From now on, I will emphasize that "addiction is a chronic disease like none other" and cite the survey results. That's because unlike other serious illnesses I compare it with — diabetes, heart disease and breast cancer are ones I often cite — to recover from addiction is much more than simply not suffering with the active illness. I doubt that diabetics believe they need to hang out with other diabetics to get well. Honesty probably has nothing to do with overcoming heart disease. And though breast cancer survivors are certainly a grateful lot, gratitude will never keep the disease at bay.

The survey reinforces what I have come to believe in the past few years, both in my professional life and in my own personal journey. While a cure remains elusive, the solution isn't cut and dried, either, beyond the obvious goal to get better. How we get there affords us plenty of room to maneuver. Fortunately, there's room for all of us.

William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs. His book "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery" was published last year. Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected] To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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