In the early 1980s, a musical group called The Clash released a song whose title went on to become almost an anthem for many people in a variety of situations. The song was called “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and it truly sums up the multitude of dilemmas that people experience in life.
Today we will be looking at how this simple question presents itself when focusing on addiction – both for the addicts and for their loved ones.
Is Addiction Actually a Disease?
As many of you know, I am an addict. I have been in active recovery for the last 32 years, with no relapses and no time off for good behavior. I have also been working as an Addiction Therapist exclusively with addicts and their families for approximately 27 years – and I am the loved one of addicts, so I know addiction from all different angles. As a result, I have moved away from believing that addiction is a disease – also known as the “medical model,” which is espoused by the 12-Step programs I attended for many years (such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, CODA, and Al-Anon), and still widely believed by a variety of addiction doctors.
The people who believe in the medical model also call addiction a “brain disease” – perhaps an apt description because all addictive behaviors affect our brain chemistry, especially mind-altering addictions like alcohol or drugs. But I also know that if I raise my little pinky and move it up or down, there is brain involvement in that too. That’s how we’re wired as human beings – there is brain involvement in everything we do.
I have difficulty seeing addiction as a disease for two simple reasons:
1. I have a medical disease. Diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1973, I was told that it is incurable and that I’d have it my whole life. Although this has basically been true, after many years of being in active recovery from addiction and learning how to take really good care of myself, I’m happy to say that some days I forget I have Crohn’s – that’s how much better it is much of the time.
But I can’t just say to myself “I think I won’t have Crohn’s anymore.” People with medical diseases like cancer, diabetes, and many others can’t just decide not to have them anymore. It doesn’t work that way.
However, as I found out early into my recovery, we can do that with addiction.
2. In my considerable experience in working with those struggling with addiction, what I know to be true is that when we tell an addict they have a “disease,” we generally get one of two responses. One response is that they say, usually with a lot of aggressive and arrogant attitude, “I have a disease, I can’t help it – get out of my face and leave me alone!” The other is that they say basically the same thing, but in a much more whiny tone of voice displaying much more of a victim mentality: “I have a disease, I can’t help it, stop bothering me.”
Either way, they feel like they are giving up all their personal power and have no other choice than to continue the addiction.
Contrary to the belief that we are “powerless over our addiction” – which is what we are told in Step 1 of the 12 Steps, I see it differently and have for a long time: I see addiction as a choice. Let me explain what I mean.
I don’t think that anyone chooses to become an addict – I know I didn’t. In fact, most people think they can handle whatever addictive behavior they are regularly using. “It’s not me who will become addicted,” they convince themselves, “because I’m special and unique.” They believe it’s the other guy who’ll have a problem – not themselves. That is, until they find themselves floundering right in the middle of that very insidious problem.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Like the caterpillar who intuitively knows it must change into that spectacular butterfly or die, there comes a point in every addict’s life when they know that there is something very wrong in their lives. They see other people living what they consider to be better, more productive, more successful lives than the ones they, as addicts in active addiction, are living. They know their relationships are suffering, their health issues are getting worse, they can’t hold down a job – and can’t seem to go a day without using the addictive behavior, even though in some cases it could very easily kill them.
It is when that realization strikes, that the addict is in the throes of making a choice. Am I going to stay in active addiction and feel awful about myself, or am I going to shift into active recovery and develop some self-respect? That is the choice point. Do I stay or do I go?
The good news and the bad news are the same: no one else can make that decision for an addict.
The Same is True for Loved Ones of Addicts
Family and other loved ones of people struggling with addiction are essentially in the same boat as the addict. Many loved ones “enable” the addicts they love because they don’t know what else to do. They often feel like they’ve tried everything – to no avail – and they don’t have a clue what to try next.
If you’re the loved one of an addict, there will come a time in your life when you know that what you’ve been doing isn’t working. In the midst of your frustration, anger, fear and resentment, you may wonder whether you even want to continue being in relationship with them at all – or if it’s best to just cut them off. This kind of decision is extremely difficult and often heartbreaking for families – and it usually presents itself after all other avenues they can think of have been tried.
What generally happens for most loved ones, early on, is that they begin to work harder than their addict is working – trying to make things better just so that this nightmare will end. But what they don’t understand is that, as they enable the addict, they actually contribute to the addiction continuing.
Learning how to set and maintain self-respectful boundaries is the best thing families can do when dealing with an addicted person – that kind of “helping” (instead of enabling) is what assists the addiction to stop. But until families learn this – and how to actually do this – they keep trying to change and control people and situations that they simply can’t change or control.
Think about it: if loved ones could control their addicts, they would be doing that already. Instead, they waste a lot of their precious energy until their own vitally important self-care becomes depleted. That is generally the time when they begin to ask themselves – in response to their relationships with the addicts they so dearly love – “Should I stay or should I go?”
Remaining in any kind of active addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, or to another person, is never a good idea. Poisoning ourselves with toxic substances, or hurting ourselves with other addictive behaviors such as overspending, internet addiction, gaming, sex addiction, disordered eating, or codependency is never a healthy, self-respecting choice.
And enabling an addict – contributing to keeping the addiction going – is NEVER a loving act.
Whether as an addict still entrenched in addiction or as the loved one of someone struggling with this issue, when asking yourself “Should I stay or should I go?” it is important to remember that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. However the choice point shows up in your life, if you’ll be doing what needs to be done in order for you and those you love to be healthy, then that is the gauge you’ll want to follow.
And if you’re not sure how to follow a different and better path – whether as an addict or a loved one – please be sure to find a professional like myself who can help you through this process.
Asking yourself “Should I stay or should I go?” could ultimately be the best question you could pose to yourself – it shows that you’re tired of the same-old, same-old actions you’ve been doing and that you want a change. Be sure to listen to your inner answer carefully and to take action in as positive a way as you can – and as soon as you can.