Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Stanford, John Hopkins, UCLA, all agree that substance use disorder is a disease, not a moral failure.
However, stigma still outweighs education? What will it take for society to recognize substance use disorder as a disease?
Allow me to paint a picture that may help you understand this illness.
At eight years old, I was diagnosed with severe allergies and asthma. My mother had a job that was packaged with great healthcare benefits. The doctor prescribed the steroid Ventolin and Vanceril. At the time, these medications were the top of the line concerning asthma treatment. Leading authorities on childhood asthma spoke in glowing terms about the results this medication displayed. The first day I took the medication still feels fresh in my mind. My mother sat me down and correctly showed me how to use the medication. The first inhale of the medication gave me the highest euphoria to date. At that very moment, I could not wait for her to depart because I knew I was taking more. That was the beginning of a long road of substance use disorder.
It was not just the inhaler, where I displayed addictive behaviors. I fell in love with my first blue raspberry blow pop and ate a case. I took my lunch money and bought a case of blow pops only to result in an emergency room trip. The first time I ate pepperoni I indulged so much I threw up. I played my Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo until they burned out. Fast forward with over two years sobriety; I ate so much ice cream, my cholesterol levels became almost toxic. A year later, I used so much cologne I had to seek a dermatologist for steroid cream. Do you see the pattern here? I was born with a brain that likes more. The difference between a person without this illness, their brains shut off. My brain has no shut off from something it truly likes regardless of the consequences I suffer.
My mother blamed herself for years, and honestly, I was ashamed of my inhaler abuse. However, all the research shows that substance use disorder is not a disgrace; it is a disease. I am taking power out of shame and educating the world. How would a mother have known the best medication prescribed was addictive? The best health insurance gave her a great doctor, and in turn, he prescribed the best medication. Our system is built to trust the decade and rigorous study of medical school. We all visit doctors in search of the best help and trust their opinion. Even second opinions are sought by a person in the medical field, preferably another doctor. The cold hard truth is that nothing could have stopped my years of abuse. It was only a matter of time before I found something I liked, and it had its effects.
I kept asking myself why all these latest studies concerning substance use disorder focused on the youth? As I continued to read more and more, I realized they discovered the answer. If we are to understand this illness, indeed, we must understand the behaviors that start at the youth level. I have spoken for years at multiple treatment centers monthly to a range of crowds. I have NEVER met a patient that began with intravenous drug use at the age of nine. There is a progression that takes place, starting with behaviors that lead to compound drugs. The patients I have encountered speak about the same behaviors I displayed. It is almost a known fact in treatment centers that most kids abused some type of inhaler or huffed a chemical way before alcohol/drug use. Behaviors starting this early makes it clear the brain never had a choice. At eight years old, I did not have the mental capacity to understand the disorder. I knew nothing about scientific research, medical journals, leading authorities on subjects, and conferences where this disorder is discussed. All I knew is that my brain wanted more, and the habit immediately became second nature. I was never taught how to be an addict because it became natural in the pursuit of more. All the behaviors I displayed early were the same behaviors at the height of my addiction.
Education and personal testimonies are the keys to breaking the stigma. When I address student bodies, I urge them to embrace their illness. When I accepted, I had a disease is when my life began to grow. I began to attack it with a lifestyle of health that has displayed great rewards. The research and my life experience have taught me how powerful stigma can be in pursuit of answers. I learned that not accepting it does not mean it goes away. By not accepting this illness, I added on years of pain and regretable trauma. Let this blog be the education for the world to wake up and understand it is a disease, not a disgrace. I never asked for this illness, and I often wished I had a different brain. However, since accepting it as an illness, I have made lemonade of out lemons. Stigma is about being normal and accepted. I once asked a friend would I ever be normal, and she told me, “Normal is a setting on the dryer!”