What If We Treated Addiction Like Any Other Chronic Disease?

Imagine you’re at your doctor’s office for a checkup. After asking you some questions, reviewing your medical history and running some tests, your doctor reports that she has both good news and bad news.

She offers the bad news first.

“Unfortunately, you have a chronic, lifelong disease with no cure,” she says. “This ruthless disease can not only destroy your health and well-being, but it can cause you to act in ways that permanently damage your relationships with your friends, family, and loved ones. If not treated, it can be fatal.”

The good news?

“There is a proven treatment for this disease,” she says. “If we get started immediately, we can send this disease into remission forever. But you have to follow the treatment plan every day. You can never again act as if you don’t have this disease. If you neglect your treatment, the disease will return. It always does.”

Now, what if we told you the disease we’re talking about is addiction?

Many of the families we work with are shocked to hear us describe addiction in this way. When they meet with our team to tell us about a family member or a loved one struggling with addiction, they tend to see addiction in one of two ways:

  1. A bad habit that can quickly be erased
  2. A character flaw that will never be healed

“Neither is the truth,” says Thatcher Shivley, Recovery Coach for Feinberg Addiction Services.

As part of the Feinberg Addiction Services team, Shivley works one-on-one with individuals in recovery to create weekly goals, develop a support network, create a budget, and work toward gaining employment or going back to school.

“Most people don’t know very much about addiction,” Shivley says. “If I’m sitting down with someone in recovery, I’m not just going to throw solutions at them. First, they need to understand the problem.”

As with any long-term, chronic disease, understanding the facts is crucial to taking the steps that create healing. But Kristen Byrne, Director of Clinical Services, points out that taking a clinical approach to addiction recovery is challenging because it’s such an emotionally charged disease.

“When you look at the behavior patterns of someone who is struggling with addiction, it’s going to be stealing from family members or lying,” Byrne says. “It’s going to be secretive. It ruins relationships.”

As a Certified Addiction Professional, Byrne helps recovering addicts and their families understand that addiction doesn’t usually happen in a matter of weeks, months, or even a few years. The process of becoming an addict happens one of two ways. One way is when someone is prescribed a medication to address a symptom like physical pain. These medications are meant to be prescribed for a very short period of time. When they’re used as a long-term solution, it can result in physical dependence.

The other way addiction develops is early in a child’s formative years, she says, and it’s built through a series of traumatic or significant events. “How a family responds to these events shapes a child’s behavior patterns,” Byrne says. “If no one in the family knows how to tolerate these circumstances, children are going to learn coping strategies of avoidance and disengagement. They’re going to develop patterns of self-soothing that lead to addiction.”

By the time someone requires in-patient care or an intervention for addiction, they’re usually facing decades of distorted habits and belief systems that need to be addressed, Byrne says. For that reason, treating the physical addiction isn’t sufficient. The psychological component that results from the moral decay in behavior due to addiction has to be tackled.

“We are all unique individuals in the sense that our experiences shift the way we see things and the way we respond to things,” Byrne says. “Being able to build a relationship with people in recovery enables us to provide them with the support and services they need in order to challenge the distortions that aren’t serving them.”

The most important part of the process, of course, is the willingness of the individual to participate in their recovery. They need to be honest with themselves and courageous, Byrne says, because in recovery they will be challenging some very deep-rooted belief systems about themselves and the world.

While there is no shortage of headlines that prove how widespread addiction has become or how difficult addiction recovery can be, Dr. Colin King, Vice President of Clinical Services, advises families to “never shut the door before the miracle happens.”

“There is always hope for someone who is struggling,” he says. “The pathway to recovery is not a straight line. People stumble and relapse, but once there is support and treatment, they will eventually be ready to live a life in recovery. Being in recovery and seeking out ongoing treatment is really a sign of strength.”

Dr. King, a fully licensed psychologist, board-certified licensed professional counselor and certified advanced addictions supervisor joined Feinberg Consulting in November to bolster its catastrophic care, addiction recovery, and elderly care management services. He says it’s best to think of recovery from addiction as a “lifelong experience,” noting that highly successful addiction recovery programs for pilots and physicians mandate at least five years of treatment before a “good” prognosis can be given. In such programs, relapse rates can be as low as 10 percent.

Another crucial factor to Dr. King is the family-based approach of Feinberg Addiction Services, which he says is a differentiator that can make or break long-term recovery.

“If a person is active in their recovery, but their family system is not addressed or supported, there is a real possibility that they will regress and be at risk for relapsing,” Dr. King says. “It can take years and many negative consequences for some people to realize that they have a problem, but this isn’t necessary for someone to begin their recovery.”

Addiction is a chronic disease, not a bad habit or character flaw. With a proper diagnosis, commitment to a daily recovery plan, and healthy supportive relationships lifelong recovery is possible.