Apparently the last column had a pretty big impact. Judging by all the emails I’ve gotten and the feedback from the editors at AP, they have asked me to do this column on a biweekly basis. I am now questioning the judgment of the editors of AP. The inmates are apparently running the asylum.

As I’m sure you have all noticed, addictions and alcoholism have been in the news cycle pretty much all day for the last two weeks (if not longer). I keep hearing the term “the disease of addiction” and it occurred to me that most people don’t know what the hell that means. So I’m going to start this column by explaining that, in an effort to educate you guys (and girls) and possibly help you get some compassion for the people suffering from alcoholism and addiction. 

First of all I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. So if you ask me if alcoholism is a disease I’ll tell you that it makes sense that it is and it does parallel diseases. Now, the initial defining characteristic of a disease would be that it’s chronic (no, not that kind of chronic – focus, people) and by that I mean it doesn’t go away. Addiction is a lifelong condition, like diabetes. There is a big genetic component; if you have that and you abuse alcohol/drugs you are more than likely going to develop a dependency and that doesn’t go away. Once you develop this dependency you will never regain that ability to control/limit your intake. That means if you have a drinking problem, you can’t go back to having a couple of beers from time to time. It just doesn’t work that way.

The second defining characteristic of disease is that it’s progressive. In essence, progressive diseases get worse (think cancer or ALS--Lou Gehrig’s disease.) In terms of alcoholism and addiction, you need more and more to get to where you want to go. Any of you ever used to use once a month, and then it was once a week and then it was both nights of the weekend and now it’s creeping up to “I want to get high before school because it just makes the day go by quicker” and that’s on a Tuesday? Yeah…that’s progression. Now in the case of the hard stuff, where there is a physical dependency too (think opiates or benzos and alcohol too for that matter), you reach a point where you need to take it just to feel normal. There is a point in unchecked alcoholism/addiction where it stops being fun and becomes your life. You don’t enjoy it but having been reliant on mood-altering substances for so long, you don’t know how to deal with life without them. This is where you see all the erratic behavior that just doesn’t make sense to people that aren’t/haven’t been addicted. like when someone you know gets caught lying/cheating/stealing/manipulating and they continue using. Any normal person would say, “Why the hell don’t they just stop and get their shit together?” That’s just it, they can’t. Once people have progressed to this point they no longer have a choice in the matter; they will continue to use until one of two things happen.

Which brings us to our third characteristic of addiction: it’s fatal.

The mortality rate for unchecked addiction and alcoholism is exactly 100%. It kills like any untreated disease, and when these people go, it’s not pretty. Alcohol and drugs are toxic to just about every organ in the body and the extreme emotional reactions that late stage addiction produce are really sad to see. I’ve buried more people than I care to count. Some of my closest friends kept convincing themselves that they were going to figure out a way to use “successfully.”  Or they would get clean and then a year later decide, “Well…maybe it wasn’t that bad, I’m going to try this just one more time.” A big component of the fatality is what sets normal people and even heavy users of drugs and alcohol apart from addicts and alcoholics and that is the obsession to use. 

The obsession is the crux of the disease. Some people can take it or leave it, some people can use heavily every day for a period of time and then stop. The addict can’t. Even if they can force themselves to stop for a short period of time, they still think about their drug of choice all day long and without it they become angry, irritated, restless, they act out in other ways. Until eventually they convince themselves that as bad as it was, they’d rather use than be miserable. 

How does one overcome the obsession to use? The reality is that the longer one stays clean the less it affects you.  It’s like turning down the volume on your addiction. It also gets a lot easier as you go. There’s also more to it. It’s a disease of emotions and you have to learn how to deal with life without checking out by using. Counseling and therapy helps, as well as 12 step programs, support groups,  and changing the people, places and things in your life that remind you of the old ways. Many people get just as hooked on the lifestyle as they do the drugs. Someone once described getting sober to me as “needing to change everything about yourself except the color of your skin” which is about right. Don’t be intimidated by that; it doesn’t have to happen overnight. It took me six weeks to get perfect (if you’re not used to my sense of humor by now feel free to read Nick Martin’s column. I got way more hits on mine anyway; he needs the help and he’s really not very funny. I anticipate your emails D.R.U.G.S. fans…)

Ultimately that is the thing about addictions, they’re treatable. That’s the silver lining. They’re treatable once you can break through the denial, the defense mechanisms, all that armor that the person has built up and get in touch with who they really are. If they’re willing to face their fears and do the work they can not only get back everything they’ve lost, but have the opportunity to make it up to all the people they harmed and eventually get the life they always wanted. Maybe even get a job touring with rock bands…probably not, but what the hell, it worked for me.

Dave Sherman