Is There a Cure for Addiction?
I’ve been thinking about the way we talk about addiction. In the words of the World Health Organization, addiction is a “chronic, relapsing brain disease.” When we think of diseases, we think about finding cures for them so that we don’t have to suffer from their symptoms anymore. But many diseases have no cures, including various cancers, diabetes, and AIDS.
If we see addiction as a disease that can be cured, does that lead to us searching for that one magic cure? If we view the recovery process as a cure for drug addiction, are we then more likely to struggle with a mindset of “If I just do this one thing, and do it perfectly, I can cure my addiction?”
The way we frame addiction and recovery has a substantial impact on the way we see our journey. If we begin to talk about addiction within different frameworks, perhaps it would allow us to understand and treat this disease in different ways.
What Is Addiction?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) considers addiction a chronic brain disease characterized by compulsive and repetitive drug-seeking despite the harmful consequences. In this sense, addiction, like other diseases, physically changes the makeup of the body, in this case, the brain.
Another way to view addiction is as a symptom of another preexisting condition because addiction tends to be a co-occurring disease. In this scenario, your addiction may be a manifestation of the mental health issues you are dealing with. The primary mental health disorder manifests a secondary disease of addiction.
Some schools of thought view addiction as a side effect of drug and alcohol abuse. In this way of thinking, the addiction is not tied to another existing issue but simply a result of abuse and dependency.
No matter which school of thought you ascribe to, it circles back to the addiction itself. With the pain and suffering that goes along with addiction, for both the person with the addiction and all of those in their circle who are impacted, it is natural to want to find an addiction cure.
What Do We Mean by Cure?
When we think of a cure for a disease, we imagine that the ailment will be identified, treated, and removed from our body forever—end of story. We can go back to living our lives the way we did before the onset of the disease and never concern ourselves with it again. When we think of addiction in these terms, it can be easy to become frustrated when we fail to achieve the results we want from a recovery program during the limited time we are there.
It can also make any relapses or struggles that we may undergo seem like moral failures rather than ongoing challenges from the disease. Would we consider ourselves moral failures if we were not able to “cure” our cancer? Many companies and programs advertise “how to cure addiction using this (insert product).” While it is quite natural to hope for a magic pill or treatment that will rid our lives of the disease of addiction—it just doesn’t work that way.
Can Addiction Be Cured?
When most people enter a recovery program or rehab facility, they are hoping for a cure or an answer… But can you cure a drug addict? Is there a cure for alcohol addiction? The hope is that somehow staying in this place for seven days or 28 days will result in a complete cure of our disease. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Experience with addiction proves time and again that there is no absolute cure.
With that in mind, if we are to frame it as a disease, it may be more productive to view it in the same light that we view diseases such as heart disease or diabetes. In this way, we can still consider other co-occurring illnesses that contribute to the addiction, recognizing that the addiction may be a symptom of the inability to address other mental health issues. We can also allow ourselves the space to see how the addiction arose from substance abuse. In this way, we can develop a more well-rounded approach to developing healthy coping mechanisms that will help us manage the disease.
Addiction is a chronic and progressive disorder. Like diabetes, addiction cannot be completely cured, but it can be managed successfully with proper lifelong treatment. Like other chronic diseases, there may be relapses or flair ups and, if not treated, the disease can be fatal.
Managing an Incurable Disease
The thought of having to fight this battle for the rest of our lives when all we want is a fix can be overwhelming. But, if we can approach it with the understanding that it is a lifelong journey, maybe that will help us to be better prepared for the journey. It’s not a sprint—this is a marathon. By starting our recovery journey with this mindset, we can recognize the need for support and be prepared rather than expecting to be cured in 28 days or less. It can be extremely helpful in making sure our head is in the right place.
Realize that this journey is doable. Even though no one has discovered a cure for people who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, recovery and rehabilitation programs offer medical assistance with the symptoms of withdrawal and provide therapy to help with recovery.
Over 70% of alcoholics who actively participate in a treatment program for the first year can stay sober for the rest of their lives. The success rate for those who struggle with drug addiction is over 50%.
Addiction Treatment Must Be Ongoing
The key is that treatment must continue long after the initial detox and recovery program. Substance abuse rewires your brain, and even as you lessen your body’s dependence on a substance, those pathways are easily triggered, and relapse will always be a possibility. Like treating diabetes, success is based on adhering to the steps. If you relapse, you step up the treatment. Recognizing the ongoing nature of the disease and understanding your ability to control and manage it can be a very empowering tool. Several other important tools make long-term management of addiction successful.
Entering a medically assisted detox program provides a safe environment to rid addictive substances from the body. These programs have the qualified medical practitioners needed to handle any adverse symptoms associated with substance withdrawal.
Medication can be used during substance withdrawal to minimize the symptoms associated with the process to facilitate therapy. A qualified physician can determine if medication is appropriate. Co-occurring mental health disorders may also require the need for medication.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is proven to be a valuable treatment tool for a wide range of addictions, including alcohol, drugs, and food. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you recognize negative behavior patterns, identify triggers, and develop healthy coping skills. Treatment involves both one-on-one therapy sessions as well as group therapy. Therapy should be considered a long-term tool that can be accessed throughout your journey.
Managing a chronic disease requires several lifestyle adjustments to ensure success. Old negative habits must be replaced with healthier ones. It is important to remain connected to a recovery community. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by including things such as exercise, a nutritious diet, meditation and mindfulness, new healthy hobbies, ongoing support through therapy can go a long way to successfully keep the disease of addiction in remission. 12 Step programs are great fellowships where we can meet people, like minded people who are struggling with the same issues. Many other chronic illnesses have “ support groups”, 12 Step groups such as AA or Smart Recovery are similar in nature and quite successful for many.
Addiction Is a Chronic Disease
Perhaps, if we are to continue to refer to addiction as a disease, we should frame it more succinctly as a chronic disease that will require a lifetime of care and support. There is no cure for addiction. We cannot expect to enter a recovery facility, spend 28 days or less, and leave cured. We can develop healthy coping skills to deal with our addiction triggers and maintain a strong community of support, including health professionals and counselors. The journey may be a lifelong one, but we/you don’t have to travel it alone.