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The Unforgivable Affliction

Help raise awareness for the plight of America's ostracized addicts.

Traditionally mental illness has been bastardized in American and world history. The cruel and unusual treatment of the mentally unsound was common and widely accepted. Today, we recognize victims of mental illness as having a disease as real as cancer, and many campaigns have led the charge for providing proper treatment for the afflicted. However, there is still one disease which we refuse to recognize as a society: addiction. The stigma surrounding addicts has made it hard for us to be compassionate and understanding of their condition.

You will meet people who will tell you that addiction is a choice. Those people are only partially correct. The choice to try drugs or alcohol can awaken the disease of addiction the way that the choice to smoke cigarettes can awaken the disease of lung cancer. One poor decision to experiment with drugs or alcohol could mean a lifetime of debilitating disease for an addict. People with addictive tendencies are born with them and they will die with them even if they never touch a substance or are fifty years clean. Most people struggling with substance abuse are in a constant battle–they are always wrestling their demons and fighting for their lives.

Once an addict is hooked on their drug, it consumes them the way that cancerous cells consume a healthy body. This is the point where addiction stops being a choice. No one wants to choose heroin over groceries, no one wants to steal from their grandmother to buy a rock of crack and no one wants to choose being so drunk in the middle of the day that they miss their child’s first grade graduation. All of these are side effects of the disease of addiction. The families of addicts watch their loved ones suffer immensely. They see their son or daughter, brother or sister, best friend or parent crippled with an ailment for which there is no cure. They watch them lose their job, their house and their friends–they see them turn pale and gaunt and become a shell of their former, healthy selves.

My biological father suffered a heroin overdose when I was three years old, and my step-father died of lung cancer when I was 18. I receive two very different reactions from people when I tell them about either of them. People who hear that I lost a parent to cancer usually respond with “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry!” or “I’m so sorry to hear that. I lost a family member to cancer too.” Whatever the response, there is always a great deal of genuine sympathy and comfort hidden in those words. But when I say that my father died of a drug overdose, it elicits a different reaction. They shift uncomfortably, drop eye contact and mumble something along the lines of “I’m sorry.” Their apology is a different one. It doesn’t say “I’m sorry your loved one died” it says “I’m sorry your father was a junkie.”

If we are going to move forward as a society, we have to forget the “junkie-bum” stigma. We have to start viewing addiction as what it truly is: a disease. We have to recognize, as a society, that sometimes an addict needs rehab instead of jail, a hug instead of a lecture and compassion instead of neglect.

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