Is addiction a public or private battle? The answer is that it is both. It concerns the individual who is suffering from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. It is a concern for the public because of the extent to which addiction reaches into the fabric of society in a decidedly harmful way.
First, let us look at the personal battle with addiction. Most recovering addicts will tell you the feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness that overwhelmed them every single day of their using lives. Addicts lie to themselves, and everyone around them. There is only one authority to which addicts defer and that is their drug of choice.
This is not a matter of willpower the addict needs to overcome adversity. The battle is deep within the biological and psychological workings of the addict brain. Addiction hijacks reason, judgment, values, and desire to “do the right thing” for family and society. There is nothing more powerful than triggering the pleasure center of the brain. Most people get a surge of pleasure naturally through the release of the brain’s “feel good” neurotransmitters by participating in stimulating activities like, for example, hiking, biking, golfing, skiing, and challenging their intellectual skills through games. When the activity feels good, we want to do it again. These activities, however, do not compare to the levels of pleasurable stimulation artificially produced by drugs. Once the brain experiences the intensity of a drug “high”, it remembers. It wants more. It will sacrifice all that is good — family, friends, trust, compassion, acceptance, and self-respect — for more.
Of course, it is not quite as simplistic as that. Not everyone who takes drugs is an addict. The other component to this private battle with addiction is psychological. Addicts succumb to the belief that drugs will make them stronger, popular, better able to cope with life stressors, improve their relationships, overcome their self-doubts, and raise their self-esteem. The combination of dissatisfaction with self and the strong effect drugs have on brain chemistry culminate in the “perfect storm”. Somewhere inside this raging storm is the real person, the person who wants to be a good spouse, parent, and community member. This person wants to feel self-respect and be respected. This private battle requires addicts to take charge, muster support, and face the enemy called addiction and free themselves to be what they are capable of being.
Although addicts must fight an internal battle to achieve a drug-free lifestyle, they are still part of a larger network. They are spouses, children, parents, employees, bosses, community members, and community leaders. Everyone has a stake in the well-being of its citizens. Consider a child’s mobile that hangs above the crib. Tug on one string and all the parts move. Alternatively, consider a spider web where the light touch of even one silky thread vibrates throughout the whole intricate structure. The behaviors exhibited by the addict are much like the tugging of the string or the touch of a thread. The addict affects everyone around him or her to one extent or another. There are the broken promises to the child, the domestic disputes with the spouse, and missed days at work. There is driving under the influence, causing complete strangers to deal with consequences of the addict’s behavior. The addicted brain loses its moral compass, a compass it needs to live productively in our society.
The very nature of addiction is to wreak havoc for not just the user, but for the public as well. It is simply a matter of public health that all citizens care about the outcome of this battle. The public needs to participate. This battle is different from the private battle. It requires confronting deep cultural attitudes in America that permit, and even promote, pro-drug messaging. Movies, song lyrics, hip-hop, rap, magazines, television, internet, social media, to name some, are sources of drug using references. Children and adolescents are big consumers of these media and it perpetuates the cycle of use. When the public begins to reject these messages, there just may be the beginnings of a battle well fought.