You will often see addiction referred to as a disease, but is it really a disease? There are some people who believe that addiction is a disease and should be treated as such, while others think it is a pattern of learned behaviour which, with the right treatment can be unlearned.
The definition of a disease is “a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury.”
Alcoholism V Cancer
So let us consider this. Cancer, for example, is a disease with which we are all familiar. The structure of cells mutates to create a physiological abnormality, the cause of which can be genetic, environmental or lifestyle choices. Thinking about choices, we have all been educated about how the choices we make can cause cancer. A disease is what happens to your body as a result of those choices.
When a person is addicted to alcohol, the brain becomes physically altered and behaves differently. Is this any different to the mutation of cells? This characteristic brain alteration, caused by alcohol abuse, can also perhaps be attributed to a combination of genetic predisposition to addictive behaviour and environmental or lifestyle choices. In the same way that our environment can sometimes cause cancer, so can our emotional or social environment lead to alcohol abuse. When a person first starts drinking, they are still making free or conscious choices, but once the brain’s function has been changed by addiction, willpower becomes impaired and the addict is no longer able to control their abuse.
Lifestyle v Medication
The only real difference is that a person with cancer cannot choose to stop their disease with simple lifestyle changes and will need medication to stand a chance of overcoming it, whereas an alcoholic can overcome their addiction through lifestyle changes and unlearning their patterns of learned behaviour. Depending on your level of addiction, medication will also be used to deal with the withdrawal symptoms, but the medication is not treating the “disease” in itself in the same way as cancer.
What really matters
Whichever side of the argument you are drawn to, if you suffer from an alcohol addiction it does not matter if it is a disease or not. The good news is that if it is a disease, it is treatable and if it is a learned behaviour, it can be unlearned. If you accept you have a problem, disease or not, you can take responsibility for seeking treatment and your recovery.