A Reminder That Addiction Is An Illness, Not A Character Flaw

Commentary on Joe Biden's response to his son's substance misuse offers a gross example of how addiction is often viewed as a moral failure.
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It’s 2022 and we’re still screaming this into the void: Living with an addiction does not say anything about a person’s character.

In a Fox News segment Monday, Sean Hannity shared a voicemail that President Joe Biden allegedly left his son Hunter in 2018. In the message, which was originally obtained by the Daily Mail, Biden offered words of love and support to Hunter, who was struggling with substance abuse.

“It’s Dad,” Biden tells his son in the recording. “I called to tell you I love you. I love you more than the whole world, pal. You gotta get some help. I don’t know what to do. I know you don’t, either.”

The segment followed a recent report from The Washington Post that Hunter is under investigation for tax crimes and making a false statement while buying a gun.

“It’s actually sad,” Hannity said of the message. “That voicemail reportedly came at the exact same time Hunter lied on a gun application to buy a handgun.” (There’s no evidence to suggest Biden knew about Hunter’s gun purchase at the time.)

Some viewers weren’t sure why Hannity’s show presented the voicemail as though it were something damning.

The narrative about substance misuse that’s suggested here, that it’s evidence of some kind of character flaw, is both infuriating and tired. It’s an idea perpetuated mainly by people who lack empathy, but it’s still hard to hear ― particularly for people who know firsthand what it’s like to live with addiction, or to love someone who has a substance use disorder.

A person’s addiction is often used as an insult against them. Because of lingering, powerful stigma, certain people think of living with substance misuse, or relapsing into it, as some sort of depravity.

But, spoiler alert: It’s not. While addiction can be devastating and painful ― and needs attention and treatment ― it’s absolutely not a sign of weakness or a character flaw.

“Substance use disorders are chronic brain diseases caused by both biological or genetic characteristics that are largely out of the person’s control, and by environmental insults that are only partially in the person’s control,” said Andrew Saxon, a psychiatrist and member of the American Psychiatric Association’s council on addiction psychiatry. “Morality does not enter into the equation at all.”

“Substance use disorders are chronic brain diseases ... Morality does not enter into the equation at all.”

- Andrew Saxon, member of the American Psychiatric Association’s council on addiction psychiatry

Furthermore, just like cancer or any other health issue, addiction doesn’t discriminate. The illness can affect people from all demographics ― which undermines the idea that addiction makes someone a failure or a terrible person, said Jamison Monroe Jr., co-founder of the Newport Academy, a mental health and addiction treatment center for young adults.

“Addiction can happen to anyone. From the rich and famous, to teens with good families, to parents, and everyone in between, no one is immune to addiction,” Monroe said. “Experiencing addiction does not make you a ‘bad’ person, and relapsing does not mean that you are weak.”

Helping Someone Who Is At Risk

More than 40 million Americans ages 12 and older had a past-year substance use disorder in 2020 ― which means there’s a fair chance you know someone who’s experienced the condition, if you haven’t experienced it yourself. It’s vital to understand that addiction is a disease just like any other long-term illness, but there’s more that loved ones can do to be supportive. It’s not enough to be compassionate in silence; you need to show up.

“Studies show that the likelihood of relapse goes down when individuals have better coping skills and social support networks,” Monroe said. “So relapse can be an indication that a person in recovery needs to build in more support for living a sober life.”

If you know someone who is dealing with addiction, here’s how you can actually make a difference:

Reaffirm to the person living with the disease that it is not their fault.

A person isn’t defined by their addiction. “The individual with a substance use disorder needs support and affirmation that the maladaptive behaviors that are part of the substance use disorder syndrome represent the disease, and not the underlying person,” Saxon said.

Emphasize that you are not judging them for their illness.

Research shows that stigma prevents many people from seeking help for their condition. “Make sure they know that you are not disappointed in them, and that you are there to support them throughout the journey,” Monroe said.

“Stay optimistic even when relapse occurs,” he went on. “Let your loved one know that you have faith in their ability to stay sober and live a drug-free life.”

Encourage them to continue seeking treatment.

Addiction isn’t an acute issue like a cold. It takes continuous work to stay in recovery. You can support someone by “keeping up a steady message that treatment is necessary,” Saxon said.

“Addiction treatment is not a one-time fix, but rather a part of life in recovery,” Monroe said.

Include them in your own routine.

There’s power in partnership. “If you have healthy lifestyle habits in place, invite them to join you for part of your routine, whether it’s going to the gym regularly, hiking, eating well or doing yoga,” Monroe said.

Look into support for yourself.

Don’t forget that your mental health is important too. “Family members may also benefit by joining a mutual help group such as Al-Anon, because the family members need support as well,” Saxon said.

Celebrate those who are speaking up about mental health issues.

Drawing conclusions about a person’s substance use disorder or relapse, or questioning someone’s story of recovery, doesn’t do anyone any favors, Monroe said.

“Instead, allowing people to speak to their own experience can help reduce the stigma around mental health struggles,” he explained.

It’s important for public figures to continue to talk about their experiences, good and bad, Monroe added. “They shine a light on the facts that substance abuse is complicated, that it touches all demographics and that relapse is not uncommon. Reducing stigma around addiction and mental health issues is extremely important in making societal changes.”

This story originally appeared in July 2018 and has been updated.

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