Understanding the Disease of Addiction


By Meghan Vivo

How would you feel if you knew you lived next door to a drug addict? What if your child’s teacher was a recovering alcoholic? How would you react if you discovered your son or daughter was addicted to drugs?

Addicts are a highly misunderstood group. Even though scientific research has shown that addiction is a disease similar to diabetes or cancer, society continues to view addicts as flawed, morally reprehensible individuals. The stigma of addiction prevents many of those who need help from seeking treatment, and forces people to continue hiding in the shadows.

Addiction affects millions of people and their families, friends and coworkers. It also takes a huge toll on society. Only by educating ourselves and clearing up the misunderstandings can we begin to make progress in fighting this disease.

This is one woman’s mission – to educate others about addiction and help them realize they are not alone. Libby Cataldi, author of Stay Close: A Mother’s Story of her Son’s Addiction, spent may years fighting, lamenting and feeling mystified by her son’s addiction to heroin. Like many of us, she had never experienced addiction in her own life and didn’t fully understand the devil that seemed to be taking over her son.

Through Libby and her son Jeff’s experiences, we can learn a great deal about addiction and begin to clear up many of the misunderstandings we have about the people who become addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Myth #1: Addiction Only Affects the Weak.

Many people believe addicts are weak, flawed individuals with no willpower or morals. But those who have made understanding addiction their personal and professional passion know otherwise.

Dr. Patrick MacAfee, a licensed family therapist and accredited addiction specialist who has worked in the field of addiction and recovery for 40 years, believes that although addicts may be vulnerable, they are not weak. In fact, he calls addicts “saints in the making.”

He explains, “Addicts are called to a new consciousness and a new way of thinking. They have to be rigorously honest and highly focused in order to preserve their recovery, staying aware of what they are doing and what their motives are at all times. People in recovery have spent a lot of time trying to understand their place in the universe.”

Dr. MacAfee was faced with the stigma of addiction early in his career. When he first decided to work in the field, colleagues told him not to work with addicts if he wanted a successful practice. “Society views addicts as flawed people – almost as a subspecies of human being – until addiction affects them personally,” he says. “The good news is with better information, society is learning.”

After speaking with countless families at Al-Anon meetings and immersing herself in the world of addiction, Libby Cataldi has learned that addiction can affect anyone, not only the weak or feeble-minded. “Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t have any one kind of family,” she says. “It happens in rich families, poor families, Wall Street families, educated families, uneducated families.”

Myth #2: People Become Addicts Because Their Parents Messed Up.

Although some addicts have underlying emotional and psychological issues stemming from family dysfunction and childhood issues, people become addicted to drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons, many of which have little to do with their parents or upbringing.

While Libby acknowledges that she has made mistakes along the way, she has also learned that addiction is a disease that affects all types of people at different times and for a number of reasons.

“I think sometimes [it’s] the roll of the dice,” she said in an interview. “Some kids get in car accidents — why? Some kids are addicts — why? Some kids are wonderful skiers — why? Why are some people so talented? Is it the parents? Sometimes no.”

She continues, “There are lots of families that are wonderful, and they have kids who are addicts. There are some families that are terrible, and they have wonderful kids. There’s no correlation out there that says, you know, here’s the way to have a good kid. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people.”

What matters more than how a person becomes an addict is how they learn to manage their addiction. By learning better coping skills and receiving appropriate drug treatment, the addict and his family can heal.

Myth #3: Recovery Is Simply About Making the Decision to Stop Using.

Addiction is a progressive disease that involves physical and psychological dependence. Although the initial decision to use drugs is a choice, once addicted, the use of drugs or alcohol feels as necessary as eating or breathing.

As Libby explained in an interview with AOL, “With addiction you’re never healed. Like diabetes or high blood pressure, it’s always there. … [I]n A.A. they say ‘one day at a time.’ Some people say ‘Oh I don’t want to hear this one day at a time, just make the decision and stay clean.’ My dad was a drill sergeant in the Marines and he’d say, ‘Tell him to stop! Tell him to stop!’ Telling an addict to stop is like telling a paraplegic to do somersaults. It’s impossible.”

Myth #4: Recovery Happens After 30 Days in Rehab.

For decades many people, including some specialists in the field of addiction, believed that 30 days was long enough for an addict to get and stay sober. Research now shows that 90 days should be the minimum length of stay in an addiction treatment program, with many specialists recommending even longer stays in extended care programs.

“The key to successful treatment is figuring out what happens when the drinking or using stops,” explains Dr. MacAfee. “Many facilities can get an addict to stop using, but extended care teaches the person to learn to live without using.”

In extended addiction treatment programs like the one offered at Sober Living by the Sea, where Jeff re-learned how to live sober, recovering addicts learn essential life skills such as how to buy groceries, cook meals, live on a budget, and manage their down time. Living in an apartment by the beach under the supervision of a “house parent,” recovering addicts are able to live independently, work part-time, and enjoy leisure activities, but with a number of checks and balances in place including:

  • Drug and alcohol testing every 72 hours
  • Addiction workshops and recovery lectures offered by specialists in the field of addiction
  • Participation in individual, group and family therapy sessions led by an assigned case manager or therapist
  • Daily attendance at AA/NA meetings

“Extended care is where the real progress happens,” says Dr. MacAfee. “Transitioning back into regular life is a very individual process, and most individuals in recovery are very vulnerable to the stressors and influences they’ll confront in daily life outside of rehab.”

Myth #5: Relapse Is a Sign of Failure.

Despite receiving treatment at a number of drug rehab programs, Jeff relapsed many times. Libby used to believe that relapse meant treatment had failed. But the addiction specialists at Sober Living by the Sea helped her realize that relapse is a normal part of the recovery process.

“Relapse can be a good stepping stone to long-term recovery,” says Dr. MacAfee, who is the former clinical director at one of Sober Living by the Sea’s drug rehab programs. “It does no good to beat people over the head for relapse. Instead, you have to find the willingness of the addict to see the need for abstinence in their life. The focus should be not on what took the person away from sobriety, but what brought them back.”

Through their experiences, Libby and her son learned that addiction is a disease that never goes away. “Recovery is forever and doesn’t end looking like a beautiful present tied up with a bow,” Libby discovered. “Sometimes like cancer, the disease comes back.”

Avoiding relapse is a daily challenge for recovering addicts. “Both addicts and those who treat the disease of addiction make the mistake of thinking that their chronic condition is something they can put behind them,” says Dr. MacAfee. “The reality is that addiction is something you have to live with and learn to be at peace with every single day.”

Myth #6: You Have to Experience Addiction to Understand the Disease.

People who have experienced or been directly affected by addiction certainly have a better understanding of the disease than those who have no experience with it. However, those who have the most experience with addiction know that the disease is something they may never fully understand.

“I have finally understood that I can never understand,” Libby writes. “Addiction is more powerful than I ever imagined anything to be. … With addiction I don’t have any answers, I have a story, I have a lot of heartache and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been beaten into wisdom, but it’s not much else.”

Because there are so many misunderstandings about addiction, Libby and her family were prepared to receive some judgment in response to Stay Close. And though they have received a mixture of responses, positive and critical, she says, “The judgment doesn’t bother me at all. It just proves to me that we need to do more with addiction. There is a lot of pain and suffering out there and we need to make it a topic of conversation so that we can begin to face the tough issues and talk about them openly.”

Just as families affected by addiction may never fully understand the disease, those who have no background in addiction can get educated about the disease and be a source of support to others.

“We can’t all experience everything that there is to experience in life,” explains Libby. “Although many of us will never experience addiction, we must have compassion for others and work to understand this disease. If our book opens the conversation up even just a bit more, then everything we went through is worth it.”

Along with knowledge comes an obligation to take action. If you know someone who is struggling with the disease of addiction, become their advocate and supporter. When the rest of the world is dishing out judgment and criticism, be the voice of encouragement and work with the addict to get them the help they need.

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