Recovering from substance abuse and addiction is fraught with challenges. These challenges involve the physical and emotional aspects of recovery as well as the philosophy of recovery itself. Some in the addiction recovery community have made the controversial claim that addiction is curable. This point of view goes against the grain of the traditional school of thought, which asserts that addiction is a complex, chronic, and progressive “disease” that has no cure but can be addressed with effective professional treatment.
Treatment involves detoxification (the process of ridding the body of toxic substances), behavioral counseling, medication, relapse prevention techniques, and other methods that promote a life free of drugs and alcohol.
Can the Cycle of Addiction Be Broken?
People in the recovery community who believe addiction can be cured point to the biopsychosocial model of addiction that can be used to break the cycle of addiction, thus curing those who have the disease. The model takes a holistic approach to addiction and looks at factors in three main categories. They are:
Biological—refers to the genetic predisposition to develop an addiction and how addiction affects the physical body. Biological factors include birth, adoption, and genetic vulnerability, among others.
Psychological—refers to the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings as they relate to addiction. Many psychological theories have provided a lens to examine addiction, including personality theory, classical conditioning theory, social learning theory, learning theory, and, of course, psychoanalysis.
Social–these factors include the influences of family, friends, and other relationships. Addiction usually has a negative effect on relationships and affects how people who are recovering from addiction relate to the people around them.
People in the recovery community who use the biopsychosocial model believe that using a multidisciplinary approach to the study of addiction should lead to the development of a more accurate picture of the causes of addiction. From that understanding, and through the development of treatments specific to these roots, addiction could have the possibility of being cured.
Why Some Believe That Addiction Can’t Be Cured
For others in the recovery community, including health experts and scientists, the question of whether addiction can be cured doesn’t square with the disease model of addiction. This model asserts that addiction and alcoholism change the brain’s structure and function, which makes it difficult for people in active addiction to control or end their use and abuse of addictive substances. A voluntary decision to use addictive substances can turn into a compulsive need to use those substances.
While professional treatment is recommended for people who are battling addiction and alcoholism, the reality is that treatment will not look the same for everyone. Everyone has a unique history of substance use and abuse, so a “one size fits all” approach will not work. There are three main reasons why this may be the case:
Programmed for pleasure. The quest for pleasure is fundamentally human, and humans in search of pleasure often resort to experimenting with drugs and other substances to invent ways to get high. Addictive drugs provide instant gratification through the release of dopamine and that process conditions us to seek out the next high.
Pain. Just as humans are hardwired to seek out pleasure, they also are hardwired to avoid painful experiences. People often turn to drugs to escape the pain, sadness, and depression that may be present in their daily lives.
Drug use isn’t just about drugs. Addiction is an illness that has a strong behavioral component. Those who are susceptible to addiction experience drugs and alcohol in a very different way than average people. Addicts seek the high more, but they enjoy it less. Furthermore, the cravings, rituals, and other behaviors associated with drug use continue even after a person stops using.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) asserts that addiction is a disease that affects the brain and behavior. It also asserts that addiction is a treatable disease but cautions that the treatment process is not as simple as it may sound.
“Because addiction is a chronic disease, people can’t simply stop using drugs for a few days and be cured. Most patients need long-term or repeated care to stop using completely and recover their lives,” it writes on its website.
Addiction treatment can help people in recovery stop using drugs, remain abstinent and drug-free, and be productive members of the family, the job, and society, according to NIDA’s view on the issue.
Its list of key principles of effective drug treatment, which it says is based on scientific research since the mid-1970s, include the following:
- People need to have quick access to treatment.
- Effective treatment addresses all of the patient’s needs, not just their drug use.
- Staying in treatment long enough is critical.
- Counseling and other behavioral therapies are the most commonly used forms of treatment.
- Medications are often an important part of treatment, especially when combined with behavioral therapies.
- Treatment plans must be reviewed often and modified to fit the patient’s changing needs.
- Treatment should address other possible mental disorders.
- Medically-assisted detoxification is only the first stage of treatment.
- Treatment doesn’t need to be voluntary to be effective.
- Drug use during treatment must be monitored continuously.
One in seven U.S. adults battle addiction, according to a 2016 federal report, and of the nearly 21 million Americans battling substance addictions, only 10 percent will receive treatment. The report lists some of the reasons why so few get help, including high health care costs and lack of screenings that can detect addiction.
Can You Cure Addiction?
It depends on whom you ask. Some people have claimed to have successfully quit using drugs on their own without professional help, an assertion Scientific American writer Nina Bai explores in an article titled, “Can You Cure Yourself of Drug Addiction?”
Bai highlights a “survey that found that between 60 to 80 percent of people who were addicted in their teens and 20s were substance-free by their 30s, and they avoided addiction in subsequent decades.”
The article also includes a Q-and-A interview with Sally Satel, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, who said it is possible to cure yourself of addiction without professional help. “Most people recover and most people do it on their own,” Satel told Scientific American.
However, she also said, “That’s in no way saying that everyone should be expected to quit on their own and in no way denies that quitting is a hard thing to do. This is just an empirical fact. It is even possible that those who quit on their own could have quit earlier if they sought professional help.”
Some may disagree. But consider this: How people arrive at the point where they are either freed from the clutches of addiction or seeking help to put drugs and alcohol behind them is perhaps more important than how they got to the point where they knew they needed help and got it.