The American Medical Association (A.M.A.) has classified alcoholism as a disease for almost four generations. But in my decade as an interventionist, I still spend most of my time convincing families of addicts that this is true—that their relative's uncontrollable cravings for booze and other substances are not something that they can control or wish away. Nor is their inability to get sober a matter of being weak. The fact is, despite endless medical and genetic evidence published on this subject, our culture still doesn't truly believe that addiction is a disease. If we did, would we really try to cure it by spending billions for Black Hawk helicopters to defoliate foreign coca fields, even as states across the nation are freezing out all the funds earmarked for drug treatment and prevention?
If the public still has a difficult time accepting that heroin addiction is a disease, try convincing them that addiction to steroids is a medical malady. Consider the recent travails of Manny Ramirez, regarded by many as one of the greatest right-handed batters in the history of the game. Last week, the 38-year-old Tampa Bay player tested positive once again for a banned substance, his third such infraction in eight years. Rather than accepting the M.L.B.’s penalty of a 100 game suspension, Ramirez chose to retire instead. He has a longtime reputation for being a difficult guy, jumping ship when things get uncomfortable. From an interventionist’s point of view, walking away from a self-created mess is a classically alcoholic move. “A person who tests positive for any banned substance on numerous occasions, despite the prospect of facing severe consequences, may indeed be suffering from an addictive-type disorder,” says addiction specialist Dr. Scott Beinenfeld.' Addiction to steroids is a poorly understood disorder with deep psychological underpinnings that are difficult to treat.”
The general perception of Ramirez in the media is that he is "stupid
,” "a clown
" who "didn’t learn his lesson
.” In a recent interview, Ramirez’s former teammate Bobby Jenks said
, "If you do it and get caught once, you're an idiot, and if you do it again, you’re a dumbass.” Not exactly what would be said in similar circumstances about other diseases.
As with all addictions, steroid abuse is more a compulsion than a logical choice. And like all drug abusers, long-time steroid addicts keep on using the drug despite a plethora of negative consequences. The well-known warnings about the uncontrollable acne, fits of rage, and disappearing testicles the abuse causes are enough to scare off some users but not all. They certainly didn't seem to scare off Manny Ramirez. There are enough people addicted to steroids that Sierra Tucson, the Arizona-based treatment center, offers a specialized treatment program for steroid abuse. Did the suits that run Major League Baseball ever consider sending Ramirez to treatment when his latest infraction came to light? Wouldn’t that have been a more honorable option for the baseball legend than an impulsive retirement? If Ramirez had torn a ligament in his knee, M.L.B. would have immediately provided him with a top-notch physician. But faced with such an obvious substance abuse problem, they chose to throw him off a cliff. Their response—and the public's—is as clear an indication as any of how far we have to go to educate America about addiction.
Joe Schrank is Co-Founder and Editor at Large of
The Fix, C.E.O. of the Core Company, Interventionist and Board Chair of the National Youth Recovery Foundation.