Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Is addiction a disease?

Have you ever been addicted to anything before? I mean seriously addicted to the point where you simply can’t help indulging in something? And I’m not talking about a 'chocolate addiction' where a work colleague comes to your desk with a block of chocolate and you come out with something like “Oh I really shouldn’t, but I can’t say no to chocolate.”

Peaches Geldof died of a massive heroin overdose at the age of 25. According to the Coroner, she died with almost 80 syringes and burned spoons scattered around her house. While that is alarming on its own, the most disturbing fact is that Peaches’ toddler son was also left to lie around the house for 17 hours while she lay dead after taking a hit ten times stronger than the one that killed her mother Paula Yates.

So how do you respond? Is she just another waste of space junkie who didn't deserve to be a mother and who is better off dead than alive? These are the thoughts of some people I've spoken to. Or is she a tragic accident that deserves sympathy and empathy?

I can see how people would arrive at both conclusions. It is arguable that Peaches was a selfish mother who did not seriously care for her child and who made an active “choice” to indulge in a heroin binge. These people might rightly argue that if she was going to make the choice to shoot up in her home, at least have the decency to drop her son off to someone who could mind him.

On the flip side, there are those who may rightly argue that Peaches had a disease in the form of an addiction that led her to overdose amongst  80 syringes lying around a house in which her son had free reign. These people argue that she (and others in her situation) needed our help, not our condemnation.

Whatever the answer, it has sparked a debate about whether addiction is a disease or a choice.

According to my dictionary, addiction is defined as follows:
The state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.
Now I don't know the full extent of Peaches’ heroin use in order to ascertain whether she was
“addicted” according to the definition I just provided, but I think it is a fair assumption that she was in fact addicted when you consider the circumstances of her death and the fact that she was on a methadone program for two and a half years prior to her death.

However, is an addiction a disease? According to a recent Mammamia article that dominated my Facebook news feed on the weekend:

"As for addiction being a disease? Cancer is a disease. Nobody gets a choice with cancer. Addiction, however – and the behaviour around it –  still comes with choices. There’s the choice to seek treatment. There’s the choice to stop using. There’s the choice to not use drugs in front of your children. There’s the choice not to get wasted when you’re alone with your baby. There’s the choice to tell your partner that you are unable to care for your kids right now, that they’re not safe with you. There’s the choice to ask for help. There’s the choice to put one or 80 needles in your arm while your baby cries or plays happily at your feet, unaware that he is about to lose his mother forever."
Yes cancer is a disease and no, we don’t get a choice with cancer, although that is arguable if you go and smoke a pack of darts a day. I agree addiction comes with choices… to begin with. However, once the addiction takes hold, the choice to simply stop using is severely diminished. In fact, in many situations it is completely diminished and in the case of people like Peaches, it is the death of them, much like cancer is to many people.

“There’s the choice to seek treatment”. Well isn't that the same whether you have cancer or a drug addiction?

The point is, once you are addicted to something that takes a strong hold, in many cases you have no choice. You can’t help but submit to the addiction. Is an addiction a disease when it takes such a hold that the person addicted cannot overcome it? Is an addiction a disease when it alters the normal state of the body such as the effects of withdrawal seizures and delirium tremens?

Assuming this was the case with Peaches Geldof, which I would argue it was given she was on methadone for two and half years and seemingly couldn't help but take heroin from 80 syringes with a child in the house, what is the compassionate approach to a fellow human being who was quite obviously in need of help? Do we throw rocks from our glass houses? Or do we ask ourselves why she, and others in her position, failed as a mother, why she resorted to drugs, why she couldn't help but shoot up in front of her son?

While I am no doctor and can’t give a definitive answer as to whether or not addiction is a disease, surely the answer is to try and determine the source of the problem rather than simply condemn the person in need of genuine help. Yes, drug addiction begins with a bad choice, but does that mean that we throw our arms in the air and say "sorry, not helping you, you made a bad choice". Do we outcast everyone who makes bad choices in their lives? We all make bad choices at some point or another. Rather than condemn, why don't we try and find out what leads to making bad choices, especially in relation to drug addiction.

Maybe we need to do more research into the effects of growing up without a mother and father (Peaches was 11 when her mother died), or the effects of growing up with a mother who died of a drug overdose. Maybe we need to put further efforts into helping the addicted rather than condemning them as outcasts.

We are fantastic when it comes to assisting people with mental illnesses such as depression yet we don't seem to care for people addicted to drugs. What about those that are born with a predisposition to drug addiction because their mother used while pregnant? 

What good does our condemnation do to those that are in the same situation as Peaches Geldof and need help? While they battle their addictions and the resolve to come forward to seek help, is condemnation going to get them any closer to becoming clean?

It’s easy to judge and easy to condemn. It’s not so easy to try and help.

The likes of Peaches Geldof need help.

All the best,


  1. Hi, this was just wonderfully and eloquently written. Job well done. Thank you.

  2. That was really compassionate and beautifully written Dom. As to whether or not addiction is a disaease or not, who knows really- it's all one opinion v another. Your underlying point though, that we cannot judge anyone is absolutely spot on. Keep up the good work!

  3. Thanks guys! Appreciate the feedback.