Is Addiction a Disease?

By The Fix staff 10/03/17

Disease model or not, ABT knows how to get sufferers back to recovery.

Man sitting on bench looking at sea
At A Better Today Recovery Services, they focus on the individual rather than on intellectual debates about the nature of alcoholism.

To those who have no first-hand experience, it’s easy to see addiction as a point of weakness. After all, how hard is it to just put down the bottle, stop using drugs, or stop eating so much? In reality, the answer is, of course, “very hard.” Addiction isn’t a simple personality flaw as many people believe it to be; it’s an illness that requires professional assistance to treat. Those suffering from addiction are unlikely to change without guidance and medical intervention, just as with any other disease.

Like anything, there are many schools of thought about whether or not addiction is a disease or a life choice—but the American Medical Association (AMA) decreed that alcoholism was an illness in 1956 and a disease in 1966. In addition, 12-step proponents, and the literature of 12-step, perpetuate the notion that addiction is a disease that can be arrested but not cured. Those who believe that addiction is a disease subscribe to the notion that sobriety or abstinence doesn’t eradicate the addict label. The disease, according to those who believe in it, is less about the individual’s behavior and more about the thinking which causes the person to drink or use drugs to excess. A Better Today Recovery Services, a treatment center with facilities in Scottsdale, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Portland, is dedicated to getting to the bottom of that behavior, offering a unique range of treatment programs for their prospective clients: depression and substance abuse; customized lengths of time in treatment to match long-term recovery; disease-model awareness; and comprehensive, extensive inpatient programs. They know that recovery isn’t one-size-fits-all and it’s important to find the best program that works for you.

Many people with addiction or alcoholism use or drink in order to escape their way of thinking. Those who support the disease model believe that alcoholics are born with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism that their behavior then exacerbates and that the cure for the disease is the maintenance of a strong spiritual condition through the practice of attending 12-step meetings and practicing AA’s 12 steps. These steps focus on cleaning up the past, making amends for bad behavior, trying to rid oneself of character defects and most significantly developing a relationship with a Higher Power. Many who don’t believe in the disease model say that people with addiction or alcoholism choose to drink or use drugs in addictive ways and that couching their behavior as a disease abdicates them of responsibility for the damage their behavior causes. The anti-disease advocates believe that telling alcoholics and addicts they suffer from a disease actually harms them because it prevents them from getting better. Disease advocates argue that by teaching alcoholics and addicts that they have a disease, those who are suffering are able to forgive themselves for their egregious behavior and find recovery without shame. While the debate is worthwhile, no one denies that alcohol dependence is both progressive and degenerative. The body becomes physically addicted to alcohol after constant, repeated use, requiring more and more of it to achieve the same effect. It’s also highly degenerative in that it can trigger long-term effects like cirrhosis of the liver and cancer. Alcoholism also tends to run in the family, carrying on from generation to generation. Other supporters of the disease model argue that alcohol alters a person’s brain chemistry, which causes dramatic physical and psychological changes.

The disease of alcoholism doesn’t occur overnight, either. Alcohol researcher E.M. Jellinek famously outlined four distinct phases by which alcoholism operates, biologically speaking. The first phase is called “pre-alcoholic,” in which the person drinks socially and develops a tolerance. This is also where the drinker believes they’re only drinking to relieve stress or to “take the edge off.” The second stage is called the “prodromal phase,” which is an early-alcoholic stage wherein the drinker starts becoming prone to blackouts (drunken action, with no memory of it) as well as an increased tolerance to the effects of alcohol. It’s also the phase when the drinker begins hiding their alcohol consumption from others. It’s the obsession for alcohol that leads to the “crucial phase,” which is characterized by “out-of-control drinking” at inappropriate times, not to mention a series of negative consequences in their personal and professional lives. Finally, the “chronic phase” puts drinking at the center of all activities, leading to a wide variety of health problems. Combined, Jellinek’s phases make clear that alcoholism has the shape and structure of any other medical disease or condition—albeit one that is incredibly hard to find a cure for.

A Better Today Recovery Services knows these arguments all too well, having built an incredible network of individualized treatment programs for its clients. Disease model or not, ABT knows how to get sufferers back to recovery. First and foremost, it offers treatment programs customized to one’s drug of choice: alcohol, cocaine, meth, heroin, or pills—rather than lumping everything into one impersonal program of recovery. Secondly, its menu of treatment options are second to none: cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga therapy, equine therapy, group therapy. You name it.

“I wasn’t so sure at first,” Debbie said, a former patient of A Better Today’s Scottsdale campus. “Everyone told me that I was weak. I was drinking only because I was weak, they said—not because I might have a disease. A Better Today really opened my eyes to that difference,” she admitted. She’s not alone. The treatment center boasts a success rate that’s as impressive as its roster of medical professionals, caretakers and interventionists. Without A Better Today, many would be lost in the debate between “disease” and “choice” as options when it comes to addiction. A Better Today simply offers a third option: “Live.”

A Better Today is a recovery services provider that has locations in Scottsdale, Las Vegas, and Portland, Oregon. Find out more at or follow them on Facebook.

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