It’s a Disease, Not a Choice

An open letter to those who are angry with a loved one whose addictions are off the rails.

Mood music:

This is one of those posts where I’m leaving names out to protect privacy. Still, the person this is meant for will know it’s for them, and he/she will be pissed at me. But that’s OK, because I’m saying something that needs to be said.

Right now, someone close to you has relapsed into alcoholism. This time it’s bad. You’re hurt and mad as hell because you remember a childhood where this sort of thing was a constant.

You might feel like hating this person right now because his relapse feels like a betrayal against you and you alone.

You’re wondering how the hell he could do this when he has so much to live for: grandchildren as far as the eye can see, a lot of the gifts he found a few years back when he got sober. It doesn’t make sense.

Here’s an attempt to explain it from someone who has been there. My problem was binge eating and a growing dependence on wine, further complicated by the variety of pain pills I was prescribed for the aches and pains caused, ultimately, by my bad habits. I was a less-than-ideal husband and dad. I couldn’t be relied upon.

I’d sneak around feeding my addiction and then cover my tracks. Sometimes I would blatantly lie about it. [See “The Liar’s Disease“] I didn’t lie to be evil. I did it because the shame was too much for me to handle.

You might also say I didn’t know any better.

One thing’s for certain: I didn’t wake up one morning and decide it would be a laugh riot to slowly destroy myself and hurt everyone around me in the process.

To you, looking at this loved one who is in relapse, you might feel that way. How the fuck could HE/SHE do this to YOU?

But here’s the ugly truth: Alcoholism — addictive behavior, period — is a disease. Nobody chooses it. They are chosen instead. It controls you like a puppet. You know as you’re doing that addictive action that it’s wrong and you hate every second of it. But your motor skills have taken over and you CAN’T stop.

Sure, we can shake it in time and find recovery, but relapse is a natural part of the disease. In fact, relapse is something I probably worry about the most, because I’ve been relatively lucky up to this point in my 12-Step program.

I know it can creep up on me and regain control at any moment, before I know what hit me.

In one of my favorite TV shows, “The West Wing,” Leo McGarry describes where the mind goes:

“My brain works differently,” he says, followed by,” I don’t get drunk in front of people. I get drunk alone.”

It’s the same way for a food addict. You can’t have just one slice of pizza. It has to be the whole box. I once joked to a friends that I can’t eat just five. And when I really wanted to numb my frustrations in a bag of junk, I always went peddle to the metal out of sight from others; typically when I was alone in my car.

Yeah, the addicted brain works differently.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: Don’t hate the person who has fallen into relapse and disappointed you so badly. The person didn’t choose to be this way. He developed a disease a long, long time ago. And diseases have a habit of reasserting themselves from time to time. Sometimes the victim is not able to shake the relapse this time and it becomes the person’s demise.

It sucks. But it’s how it is.

Be mad. Be frustrated and hurt. But try and remember this person didn’t set out to hurt anyone.

Go easy on him/her, and yourself.


9 thoughts on “It’s a Disease, Not a Choice

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  5. I know this is an older post, but it has applicability every day.

    My take on the Choice/Disease argument once again has a decidedly Christian perspective.

    Beyond the fact that regardless of how well behaved any one of us is, we still chose to do things we know we should not. When you were hiding in your car your shame testified to your understanding that your actions were hurtful to yourself and others. The Law exposes sin and gives it the power of death in our lives. Again, regardless of how well behaved or poorly behaved any of us is, the only difference may be the ease with which we discount the problem.

    From a my Christian perceptive we are incapable of changing this or even seeing it until Christ grants us that vision (lest any man should boast). When that vision is granted, then we may choose (which is why I cannot remain dry eyed any time I hear Amazing Grace).

    The problem is that some by sheer strength of will may modify their behavior, “proving” we can change, but if they have not truly come to the end of themselves they are just cleaning the outside of the cup.

    Some of us never come to the end of ourselves in time, we refuse to accept our utter failure even when it screams into our consciousness, again regardless of how well or poorly behaved we are. To your point those people do not deserve our scorn or hate. They need our prayers and hope.

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  7. One thing that helps me when I am hurt or disappointed is to remember that we are called to love the sinner and hate the sin. When the 2 are separated it makes it easier, for me anyway. Hopefully this is helpful to others as well.

    And although we can’t change others, God can. Just a short example. My husband asked me to marry him 3 times and I said no the first 2 times because I knew he wanted children and I DID NOT want children. About 2 years into our marriage I felt a strong longing and desire for children and here we are blessed with 4 beautiful children. Although it wasn’t an addiction I know that God can change people.

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