Through the smokescreen


I spent my last winter break cooped up in my snow-surrounded basement watching “Intervention,” eyes glued to the images flashing across my computer screen: fleeting glints of ambulance lights, tear-streaked faces, close-ups of needles squeezing into flattened veins.

I’m not sure what initially prompted my obsession with the show — a documentary series that follows addicts on their pathway to treatment. I remember watching it when I was in elementary school for the shock value, gawking at the addicts from behind a screen like children at the zoo. There was something about the raw act of shooting up, watching someone slowly tear their life to shreds — some sick feeling that drew me in.

In the context of my own substance abuse, I used “Intervention” to justify my lifestyle: My habits could be so much worse, I thought. Compared to the addicts portrayed on “Intervention” who abused life-threatening and brain-altering substances, my occasional overuse of weed seemed like nothing. Because the substance I was using wasn’t as “intense,” because I was still somewhat functional, because my family was not concerned by my use, I could separate myself in my mind from the addicts.

And yet, the more I watched the show and learned about the reality of addiction, the more I identified with those suffering from the disease. I could see myself in their desperate, bloodshot eyes. My ability to relate to addiction allowed me to break down the barrier between addicts and those without a problem and to see the addicts as people with families and stories and goals — values that had become tangled with the tentacles of substance abuse.

This realization was humbling. By ridding myself of the idea that addicts were worse off than me, I became more accountable for my own actions; my weed usage appeared much more problematic without a rock bottom to compare it to.

Society’s negative view of addiction is centered on the idea that it is a moral shortcoming. The moral model defines addiction as merely a series of poor decisions caused by the addict’s lack of willpower or moral strength. This model fails to acknowledge the biological and environmental factors that also influence addiction, therefore painting addicts in a bad light and discouraging them from seeking out the help they need.

According to the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a disease that affects the brain and body in the same ways as diabetes or heart disease, involving the compulsive use of one or more substances despite life-altering consequences — disrupting regions of the brain that control reward, motivation, learning, judgement and memory and causing damage to goals and relationships. Addiction is not a lack of willpower or an animalistic desire, but rather an illness that requires treatment and cannot be fully cured.

Though addicts make the choice to try a substance the first time, even this choice may be strongly influenced by external factors, such as family situation, a history of trauma, the neighborhood that one lives in, etc. And then, once someone is addicted, their life and actions are largely out of their control; their lives are run by the drug that they need to stay alive.

Yet, breaking down the barrier between addicts and their peers would require society to take a different stance on addiction — one that views addiction as a disease rather than something dehumanizing.

There are many barriers that stop addicts from getting the help they need to get sober. Those who abuse substances are treated as disposable by larger institutions such as law enforcement. If addicts aren’t seen as human, it is easier for law enforcement to deny them human rights and to criminalize their existence — which is magnified by the common intersection of addiction and homelessness. Eliminating this negative stigma is essential to ensuring institutions provide addicts with the necessary help.

As long as people only engage with addiction from a distance or through a computer screen, they will lack the understanding to be empathetic toward addicts, and they will continue to look at them as a spectacle or form of entertainment.


Isabel Lichtman writes the Thursday blog on mental health. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @isabellichtman.

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  • Killer Marmot

    The idea that society on the whole has no empathy or understanding of addiction because they’ve never had to deal with it directly is utter rubbish. Most adults have had to deal with addiction among friends, family members, and co-workers.