Posted: Jul 24, 2013 7:00 AM
 
When a handsome, "all-American," wildly successful young man like Cory Monteith overdoses on heroin and alcohol, conversations and judgment swirl. Many of them focus on morality and good "decision-making," but I believe that rhetoric is contributing to the tragedy it’s trying to avoid.

When 31-year-old Glee star Cory Monteith was found dead in his hotel room, I immediately suspected an overdose. I mean, isn't that how people generally die in hotel rooms? I am not trying to be flippant. I take this very seriously. It's just true.

And he did die of an overdose: heroin and alcohol.

I made a point not to read any public commentary on his death, because I knew what a lot of it would say, and I couldn't stomach it: Cory made "bad choices." He was immoral. He was weak-minded. He lacked willpower. He didn't want to live differently.

In other words, so much of the commentary on things like this address addiction from a moral perspective, claiming essentially that if the addict were a "better person" with more willpower, he or she would stop using drugs.

I believe this philosophy is killing alcoholics and addicts. In this article, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to focus on alcoholism.

Symptoms of alcoholism

  1. Craving — A strong need, or urge, to drink
  2. Loss of Control — Not being able to stop drinking once drinking has begun
  3. Physical Dependence — Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness and anxiety after stopping drinking
  4. Tolerance — The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to get "high"

What's interesting to me is that major medical organizations (such as the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association) classify alcoholism as a chronic disease, "meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime… usually follows a predictable course… and it has symptoms." (Source) According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), the four symptoms are: "Craving — A strong need, or urge, to drink; Loss of Control — Not being able to stop drinking once drinking has begun; Physical Dependence — Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness and anxiety after stopping drinking; Tolerance — The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to get 'high.'"

People refuse the facts

And yet, people still refuse to believe that alcoholism is a disease. Even though medical experts have stated for years that alcoholism is a disease, they continue to claim that it's a moral issue (a matter of choice), as if they know better than medical professionals.

One of the arguments I hear the most is, "But if we call alcoholism a disease, alcoholics won't take responsibility for it!"

Really? Is that so?

So when you tell a diabetic he or she is diabetic, does that person not take responsibility for their disease? Do they say to themselves, "Oh well, whatever. I'll just keep eating sugar even though it's killing me, since it's not my fault I have this disease!"

A person who wants to recover will own their disease and make the changes necessary to enable that recovery.

That's simply nonsense. A person who wants to recover will own their disease and make the changes necessary to enable that recovery.

The other one I hear a lot is this: "Well, alcoholism isn't a disease because people chose to take the first drink and then they continued to drink until they became alcoholics. People with cancer didn't choose cancer."

And yes, that's true, but think about this: Don't most people in our society take a drink or two at some point in their lives? Is alcohol not a relatively integral part of human society? And since when do we blame people for their diseases at all?

Emphysema and lung cancer are often caused by smoking. So is lung cancer not a disease because the person "made a choice" to smoke?

Or is the diabetic disease-free because she chose to eat too much sugar and gain weight? I mean she could have eaten better, you know. Her lifestyle choices surely contributed to her situation.

And then there's my personal favorite: "Nobody lifts the glass up to the mouth of the alcoholic. If you held a gun to the head of an alcoholic, and said 'If you take a drink, I'll pull the trigger,' the alcoholic won't take the drink and therefore they have a choice."

Yes, I'm sure this is true.

But this is insane. If you held a gun to the head of a mentally ill person and said, "If you don't stop doing (whatever) behavior, I'm going to shoot you," I imagine he or she would in fact have the survival instinct to stop the action. But real life never offers this threat. A gun pressed to one's temple is very, very different than the threat of going back to jail or losing one's home or family.

To say somebody has the physical capacity to do something under extreme duress and therefore can do the same thing in regular life circumstances is absurd.

Of course, if you want to walk around all day with a gun to the head of an alcoholic, be my guest, but it sure doesn't sound like a long-term solution to me.

Alcoholics suffer from a mental and physical illness: An obsession of the mind coupled with an allergic reaction to alcohol that exists in the body.

Alcoholics suffer from a mental and physical illness: An obsession of the mind coupled with an allergic reaction to alcohol that exists in the body. It is a progressive disease. It gets worse, never better. Often, due to the obsession of the mind (which always tells the alcoholic he or she will be able to drink safely and normally one day, and that the person will die without alcohol), the alcoholic cannot see that he or she is dying.

I think people have a hard time accepting alcoholism as a disease because alcoholics have really, really unpleasant symptoms. They abuse people. They steal. They leave their children. They kill innocent people while driving under the influence. They repeat the same behaviors again and again and again. They appear infinitely self-centered and unbelievably childish.

But they are sick people.

It's a disease
not a choice.

And the death of Cory Monteith should remind us that this disease doesn't care who you are or what you have or how much money is in your bank account. Like any other disease, it gives no thought to who it's killing or how many people love and rely on that person. It doesn't care if you have kids. It's stronger than the love of your kids. It's a disease — not a choice.

And until we see it as such, we will continue coming at alcoholics with an impossible task, one that may kill them: "Get your life together. Just stop drinking. Can't you see how much we love you?"

Yes, they see, but they're seeing through a sick mind and body, and until we see them as such, we will continue to aid in their destruction. And our kid may grow up to be an alcoholic, lost in the grips of a very serious, deadly disease. We can talk to him all day about morality and right choices, but if he is powerless over his disease, and doesn't even know he has one, how will he ever get the help he needs?

Our answer to that question could mean life or death.

More on illness

Breast cancer awareness: Writing through illness
The startling impact illness may have on a child with special needs
5 Common back-to-school illnesses

Cory Monteith photo credit: Dave Bedrosian/Future Image/WENN.com

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