written by Merlyn Karst
The always present and pervasive question: Is drug addiction a mental illness? Yes, because addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, disturbing a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires and substituting new priorities connected with procuring and using the alcohol and/or other drugs. The resulting compulsive behaviors that override the ability to control those behaviors result in repeated but ignored consequences. Scientists weigh in. Brain imaging studies from drug-addicted individuals show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and behavior control. The recognized mental health issue is known and medically recognized as a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). In 2008, The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) was passed by Congress. Foundational in its language and acceptance was recognition of addiction as a successfully treatable disorder when accompanied by recovery support.
When considering addiction in all its forms, too often there will be little understanding and a lot of blame and shame. The many voices say it’s about willpower. It is said addicts are lazy; have a moral failing; on their own, have the ability to turn their lives around; care only for themselves. And on and on—sound familiar? Familiar it may be, but so very wrong. A strong will is important. Addiction takes it away—and it can be recovered. Addiction is “a biologically based brain disease, like major depression,” explains Michael Weaver, MD, medical director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Research on Addiction at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. “But willpower and resolve can play important roles in helping people overcome cravings.” The most important thing you need to know about willpower is this: “You can nurture and strengthen it if you tend to it in the right ways. Having the willpower to change behavior takes learning, practice and support.” The advent of medically assisted recovery is now playing a major role in overcoming craving that allows the brain to function normally and take advantage of “learning, practice, and support.” The key to finding the positives in a recovering person using willpower for good comes from peers in recovery and recovery community support. With help, hope and support, the will to recover can prevail.
A Peer Recovery Coach has struggled with the same challenges a person with SUD has and succeeded in meeting them with hope and health—and with that positive will and self-control the person would like to have. The Peer Coach has value to offer through “lived experience.” He/she has, no doubt, suffered the shame and guilt that accompanies addiction and keeps the person trapped in a destructive and sometimes fatal SUD. A peer coach is a helpful guide to a recovering person’s life of accountability, responsibility, and well-being. Yes, where there is a will, there is a way. True, and if there is will, there are many ways to recovery. Biblically speaking: seek and ye shall find.
So, having one’ s willpower restored and using it to change behavior, does take “learning, practice, and support.” In early recovery, as they investigate the many paths to recovery, “newcomers” are encouraged to look outside of themselves for a power greater than themselves. Fortunately, many hear this in a place of safety and comfort—surrounded by fellowship and ritual. They quickly realize the importance of learning from those with lived experience and hearing and feeling the power of their stories. From this will come the courage and confidence to change. They will also receive a generous infusion of hope. Where will is an informed and functional part of the brain, there are many paths to change. Merlyn Karst