After my last post about the struggles that families deal with when facing addiction, I received a message on Facebook from a woman admonishing me for calling addiction a disease, insisting that people “make their choices and should live with them.” As she pleaded with me to stop calling addiction a disease, I felt a flush of anger redden my face, wanting to retaliate with a message of my own, something that would cut her to the quick and cause her to think twice before writing anything on my page again. Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m not really the type of person to cower in the corner when challenged, nor do I have a problem defending my position on an issue. Once, I took great pride in these characteristics, but lately, watching our country descend into violence and hatred over conflicting opinions, I’m not quite so proud of the argumentative part of myself.
As a result, instead of quickly unleashing a few mean-spirited words back at this person, I decided to simply block her from my Facebook page and try to realize that she has her reasons for needing to believe that addiction is a choice, the same way I have my reasons for believing it’s a disease. And no matter how much I am sure that I am right about the disease of addiction, she is just as sure about her own beliefs. After a couple of days, it occurred to me that the reason I am invested in the idea of addiction as a disease is for one reason and one reason only: I want our society to have compassion for people with substance abuse instead of scorn. The reason I want compassion for alcoholics and addicts is because I have worked with thousands of them, and know for certain that most would do anything to not be the way they are, hating themselves for how they have treated the people they love. When you have looked in the eyes of a man or woman who loathes themselves because they can’t stop going to the liquor store night after night, you understand that what you are seeing is not as simple as an act of willpower. I’ll never forget early in my career when I came upon a woman curled up in a corner with her face in her hands, crying like a child because of abandoning her daughter for more cocaine. When I bent down to ask her if she was alright, she flinched at the sound of my voice, afraid I was another person about to tell her what a horrible mother she was.
In one of my favorite books of Buddhism, a monk is teaching about cultivating compassion for all living creatures. To illustrate the point he tells his student to consider the tick. (Yes, the blood-sucking tick) “A tick” he says, “when it bites its victim, is only seeking its own happiness.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still put bug repellent on my exposed skin to protect myself from the tick, but do I have to hate the tick in order to keep myself safe? Maybe it is ridiculous to consider feeling compassionate toward a tick, a snake, or an enemy, but can I at least consider that most people who differ from my political views want happiness and security for their children and families just as I do? Or, If I think addiction is a choice, can I at least be honest about how many mistakes I’ve made in my life, considering that wanting justice for others and mercy for myself is the root of all human conflict.
All those who are in the healing arts know that what makes a good counselor or therapist is not the technique, it is the ability of the technician to look deeper at the person in front of them, to not become fixated on the symptoms, but instead look at the person beneath the anger, fear, and shame. When we are able to do this, we create an environment for healing that is not concerned with who is right or who is wrong. So, for those of you who believe addiction is a choice, I will respect that you have your reasons for believing the way you do and that you don’t want your mind changed anymore than I do. But I will say this: If addiction is a choice, then so is compassion. If I refuse to recognize the basic goodness of human beings, I am likely as misguided as those I view as flawed, defective, unenlightened, unpatriotic, sinful or just plain wrong.