Over time and with ample evidence, there is very little resistance anymore to the idea that addiction is a disease, a complex, chronic illness characterized by, according to the definition of addiction by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.” Furthermore, according to the ASAM definition, “like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remissions. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death”.


As society continues to move away from the old lens of addiction as a character flaw and/or a moral failing and begins to truly see addiction through the lens of a disease and a chronic health issue, we need to begin to also change the way we view a relapse and the language we use to discuss an individual that has had or is currently active in a relapse.


Like the ASAM definition explained above and like other chronic illnesses, the recovery from addiction is not always a straight line or a direct trajectory from sickness to health. Addiction is a brain disease that requires long-term ongoing treatment, recovery support and monitoring and the journey of an individual suffering from substance use disorder can include multiple occurrences of remission and relapse. While the ideal goal for many individuals suffering from addiction can and should be complete long-term abstinence, as a society, a healthcare industry and a treatment field, we need to get away from the idea that every person that suffers from addiction or every patient that enters treatment is not recovering if they have a reoccurrence of symptoms (a “relapse.”) We need to get away from the idea that relapse equals failure. We need to understand that if we continue to equate relapse with failure we are actually supporting and reinforcing the old belief that addiction is a moral failing or a character flaw. Like other chronic illnesses, we need to move the conversation away from that old thinking and view addiction and all its components, associated behaviors and symptoms as a health condition.


Substance use disorder is a spectrum. Individuals suffering from substance use disorder can fall on all parts of that spectrum, be it mild, moderate or severe. The approach we take and the treatment plan for each person must be individualized to their specific set of circumstances, including the severity of their substance misuse. However, it needs to also take into account the biological factors, medical factors, social factors, family of origin factors, education and financial factors as well as underlying attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, trauma, sexual, gender and relationship issues that all come into play to make the person who and what they are and all these parts need to be factored into the whole treatment approach  for the individual and delivered through a long-term, comprehensive treatment continuum of care. Based on the chronic, progressive nature of the brain disease and its contributing factors, a reoccurrence of symptoms that is a relapse needs to be viewed through the same healthcare lens that we view addiction and then be treated as such.


We must also use this language when describing a relapse. Old views and language that can create or further shame and guilt or that can create, or further negative self-talk and self-esteem need to be discarded for a person-centered, health-oriented language. We cannot shame people into recovery. We do not shame diabetics or cancer patients and we must stop using that type of language when we describe or talk about addiction.


While addiction is often generally similar in nature from person to person, addiction is also extremely complex and different in situation, scope and clinical issues from person to person. We must begin to factor in all these issues and develop long-term treatment and support approaches and strategies that meet patients where they are at and do so with a language and vocabulary that further supports addiction as a disease and recovery as a health initiative and not a character issue. If we as a society can further support these ideas, we have a much better chance of improving addiction treatment as a field and improving recovery outcomes for those individuals, families and communities suffering overall.


If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or dual diagnosis issues, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (410) 773-0500 or email our team at Contact us today. For more information on all of our drug addiction, alcohol addiction and co-occurring disorder services and recovery resources, please visit our website at www.marylandaddictionrecovery.com.

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