Addiction is a strange disease. There is no swelling, no bleeding, no obvious signs that prove a sickness dwells within. Its presence can be masked for years and the behavior it encourages blamed upon a hundred other sources. No other disease is known by three universal symptoms that manifest in virtually every sufferer, yet cannot be quantified or isolated in a lab. Addiction is recognized in behavior that exhibits minimization, rationalization and, most noticeably, denial.
Our national health organizations report that over 23.5 million Americans are currently experiencing alcohol and substance abuse. Comparatively, this is only slightly less than the number of Americans who suffer from diabetes. However, there is a startling difference between the two diseases; 8 out of 10 people with diabetes have been diagnosed for their condition and are receiving treatment while only 1 in 10 people with addiction have acknowledged their problem and sought help.
Across the country there are approximately 20,700,000 people suffering from addiction who are not being treated. They live in different forms of denial. A large proportion, almost 40%, don’t want to stop drinking or using, and continue to engage in behavior that endangers others and adversely affects their health, job performance, parenting, and every other responsibility. 32% are avoiding treatment because they cannot afford to get help; a situation that will change if the new health care legislation is fully enacted. And then there is 37% — more than 7.5 million people — who avoid treatment, mostly out of fear that you and I will think poorly of them if their addiction becomes known.
The effects of denial can be seen in all of these people, weaving a thread that minimizes the severity of addiction and avoids acknowledgment of the true impact, and the importance of getting help for this dangerous and debilitating disease. There is also one more group of people that needs to be recognized. Research shows that there are over 60 million additional Americans who significantly abuse drugs and alcohol and act irresponsibly under the influence. Too often we dismiss this group with smiles and descriptions such as “he likes to party hard,” until they cause an accident, or we learn that a spouse was beaten, or their job has been lost.
If we wish to stop the destructive power of addiction from ravaging the lives of so many millions, we must stop the pattern of denial. Those with serious addiction must be challenged, with love and support, to get the help they need. Those who are abusing drugs or alcohol, and demonstrating reckless and irresponsible behavior, must be called upon to see the dangerous road they are traveling. Those suffering from addiction must face their denial, while those surrounding them must stop enabling.
An example of our constant enabling behavior is seen in a recent national study which found that more than half of the people addicted to prescription drugs obtain their supply from friends and family. Teenagers are visiting their grandparents more frequently – not for milk and cookies – but because they often have a medicine cabinet with uncounted pills for arthritis, back pain and other problems. By ignoring, not being alert to the signs of addiction, or by providing direct support, we make the problem worse. Through enabling behavior we become an accomplice to their disease.
If we want to change the statistics on addiction and see more people get help, we all need to get involved. Ignorance cannot be our excuse. Too many people are driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana and heroin. Too many people are crowding our emergency rooms with drug overdoses. Too many families are torn apart and young children harmed by those who are addicted. Denial is not an option.
As a community we must also be committed to prevention. It is time to stop endorsing behavior that glamorizes alcohol abuse, strongly support our police who pursue the sources of illegal supply, and set examples in our daily lives. Denial is the defining symptom of addiction. Let’s stop giving it the space and time to grow.