Addict or Offender? Changing the Conversation about Addiction

TIME Magazine recently published a piece about therapy for sex offenders. Buried in the article was a short review of sex addiction therapy, and the writer posed the question: addict or offender?

And it stopped me dead in my tracks because this question wasn’t limited in scope to just men and women who had committed acts of abuse or assault: it is the overarching question about alcohol and drug recovery. Are users offenders, who have broken the written laws of the land and the unwritten rules of civil society – or are they, addicts, suffering from a disease that has consumed them, which will eventually kill them if left untreated?

Are they offenders, or are they addicts? And what do you do when they’re a little of both?

The truth about drug use and crime

The National Institutes of Health recognizes addiction as a “chronic, relapsing disease.” Per the agency’s research, “the number of adults involved in the criminal justice system has soared from about 1.8 million in 1980 to 7.3 million in 2007, due largely to prosecutions of drug-related crimes and drug-addicted offenders. Criminal offenders have rates of substance abuse and dependence that are more than four times that of the general population.”

And that was 11 years ago. As of 2015, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has found:

  • “80% of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • Nearly 50% of jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted.
  • Approximately 60% of individuals arrested for most types of crimes test positive for illegal drugs at arrest.”

Drug use and abuse is not the only problem. According to NCADD, “Alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes today, and according to the Department of Justice, 37% of almost 2 million convicted offenders currently in jail, report that they were drinking at the time of their arrest.”

We have a problem. What we’re doing now as a country isn’t working. But despite the research and studies by medical and law enforcement experts, the laws aren’t catching up to the reality of what we face.

How the perception of choice changes our views

Let’s imagine a woman who is pregnant. During her pregnancy, the doctor discovers she has an aggressive form of cancer; without treatment, she will surely die. If she gets treatment, it could affect her child.

We feel empathy for the woman because she is faced with an impossible choice. She did not choose to develop cancer. Perhaps some of her previous choices may have increased her risk of developing cancer, but it’s not as though she made the choice to get cancer, right?

Now, imagine that same woman is addicted to opioids.

Did your opinion change? She did not choose to develop an addiction. Perhaps some of her previous choices may have increased her risk of developing an addiction, but it’s not as though she made the choice to get addicted, right?

It’s a difficult position. How you feel might depend on whether you view addiction as a disease or as an offense. And right now, the laws point more towards offense. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is reviewing a case about this very issue, regarding a mother who tested positive for drugs when she gave birth to a child who was addicted. The Court will decide whether or not to charge the mother with child abuse.

This is why we, as a country, need to take steps towards changing the conversation about alcohol and drug addiction. We need to make the active choice to see addiction for what it is: a disease that actually changes the chemical compounds in a person’s brain, rendering him or her unable to make the same choices that a sober person can. We need to stop worrying about who is to blame, and start focusing on what we can do to help people who are struggling with substance abuse.

How you can help change the conversation

People in recovery follow the 12 Steps, and the first is admitting there is a problem. For family, friends, and caretakers of people who struggle with addiction, the first step may be the same: admitting that you are powerless over what is happening to your loved one. It’s important, too, that you recognize and acknowledge your own beliefs and biases about addiction.

If you don’t think addiction is a disease, then you need to come clean about it. But you should know that just because you think one thing now, doesn’t mean you’re always going to feel that way – or that you can’t help your loved one through the recovery process. If you’re willing to consider that there is more to substance abuse than you know right now, then you’re taking a really important step.

Here are some things you can do to change the conversation:

  • Read the research. Stats and numbers can be overwhelming, we know – but it’s important to read articles and reports that pose a different point of view, and that look at the information collectively before making a final decision.
  • Talk to your loved one. It can be frustrating to “deal” with an addict, especially if you don’t understand the choices or behaviors. But talk to your loved one. Ask about his or her day, about what he or she feels, about goals and frustrations, and the process of recovery.
  • Withhold judgment. What you think in your own mind is one thing; what you say aloud is another. Being angry with your loved one is normal and natural, but remember this: trying to argue your points logically probably won’t work, because you haven’t had the same experiences. Besides, a “guilt trip” only fosters bad feelings between both parties.
  • Seek counseling for yourself. “Why do I need counseling?” you might be thinking. “I don’t have the problem!” Counseling isn’t about your loved one’s problem: it’s about being able to discuss your own feelings with someone who is removed from what’s happening. We offer counseling and group sessions for families here at Little Creek, but you might need someone else, too, to help you through the process, and who can give your perspective.
  • Encourage, but don’t demand. You are going to meet people who insist that addicts are all terrible, selfish people who deserve what they get based on the choices they make. Remember how mad you would get when someone tried to tell you it wasn’t the addict’s fault? When you meet resistance, encourage those around you to take a different perspective, and recommend research or books or videos that might help foster that new perspective – but don’t demand that they see it your way immediately. Remember that everyone learns at their own speed.
  • Get political. Join a non-profit, or start one of your own. Work with like-minded people to encourage legislation that promotes recovery and treatment over punishment. Petition your Congresspeople, and join grassroots organizations. Take the steps you can, when you can, to keep the conversation going.
  • Don’t give up. All of this work won’t be done overnight, and it’s okay to fail. Just don’t give up – on yourself, or on your loved one. When you fall, get back up and start again.

Together, we can change the way addiction is thought of in this country. We can change the laws, so they encourage recovery and treatment, not punishment and prison time. We can help our loved ones and the millions of people who struggle with addiction.

Let’s get to work.

Is your loved one struggling with addiction? Little Creek Lodge may be able to help. Our facility is located in Northeastern Pennsylvania and offers recovery and treatment services to those struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. Please call 570-630-9354, or fill out our contact form, and start the healing process.

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