I am a physician privileged to work with individuals and families suffering from addiction and substance use disorders. As a medical provider, I see first-hand how substances, medications and other behaviors infect an individual’s ability to make rational choices — or to behave in ways that support health and well-being.
With help, which could be medical or non-medical, an individual can experience restoration and healing in areas of the brain that promote healthy decision-making. This is fortunate when it happens, but addiction is still a chronic and relapsing condition.
An individual struggling with it is always prone to return to unhealthy behaviors whenever there is an intolerable level of physical or mental stress from just living life on life’s terms.
A recent journal article highlights that a survey conducted in 2000 in the U.S. showed that one in five respondents agreed with the statement, “Persons who acquired AIDS through sex or drug use have gotten what they deserve.”
I know some of you reading this now also agree with these respondents. I also know some of you agree that individuals suffering from addiction “have gotten what they deserve.”
I’m not writing to persuade you to believe otherwise.
What I’m writing for today is to ask for your support, and the ongoing support of the community at large, to help individuals and families suffering from the damage and collateral damage of addiction. This damage affects all of us to some degree.
I know from my work as an addiction doctor that many individuals living with addiction carry suicidal thoughts in their head every day. They already feel they are worthless. They already feel they deserve to be called “trash.” They already feel hopeless. We don’t have to tell them they are worthless, trash or hopeless by thinking they got what they deserve. They do this cognitive work already on themselves every single day.
How can we offer support? Simply spending time with and listening to those struggling with addiction will be powerful treatment. It will be a powerful start. You’ll be surprised the more you listen, just like I am, as we grow to understand that addiction is not a moral issue — a simple matter of imposing stronger and more righteous willpower over the condition — but that it’s a medical and societal issue that calls for medical and societal support. We are the support that is needed.
I want to invite all of us to remember that if we offer encouragement, even with a smile or suggestion of hope, we can help those struggling move towards healthier living. Our efforts and willingness to listen will also help save lives—our efforts can dissuade someone from completing suicide.
Thank you for reading this far. Thank you for the support you’ve already given. We’re all in the same boat at the end of the day.
Spencer Hansen, M.D., is an addiction psychiatrist with Intermountain Health and an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah Eccles School of Medicine.