What is addiction? Is it simply a bad decision a person keeps making, or actually a complex disease? Is it the consequence of a moral failing, or a form of mental illness? Because drug and alcohol addiction involves, and can be affiliated with, many different factors, it’s challenging for most people to define “addiction” succinctly.

In an effort to better understand the public’s perception of addiction, The Recovery Village surveyed approximately 400 people from all regions of the United States. The data collected revealed four commonly held beliefs about the nature, and root causes, of substance misuse. In addition, each individual was asked to define drug addiction. So how accurate were their definitions?

What Is Addiction, Really?

In The Recovery Village survey, respondents were asked about their personal addiction history. Some individuals were intimately familiar with addiction, but a smaller percentage never faced any sort of drug or alcohol use disorder. More than half of the respondents, almost 58 percent, either currently struggle with addiction or faced addiction in the past. While this demographic makes for an interesting mix of opinions, their collective responses shed light on a disappointing reality: few understand what addiction really is, even if they are in the throes of it.

Regardless of their substance abuse history, all participants were given statements regarding drug and alcohol addiction, and were asked to choose which statement they felt most accurately described substance addiction. The four statements with the most votes offer insight into the public’s views of addiction, however, one answer in particular is the most accurate.

Belief 1: “Addiction is the result of a moral failing.”

Ten percent, or 41 individuals, believed that drug and alcohol addiction can be attributed to a lack of morals. It is possible for someone to have questionable values and also struggle with addiction, but the latter is not consequential of the former.

On the outside, it may seem as if someone who struggles with addiction may be of low moral standing, or may have been a delinquent their whole life. Although this could be the case for some individuals, many people who face a drug or alcohol addiction experience drastic changes in their personalities and behaviors. Someone who was once amicable, friendly and empathetic can become withdrawn from others, irritable, and secretive as their addiction worsens. Addiction can lead someone to act out of character to maintain their drug habit, stealing money to pay for drugs, lying to loved ones and even engaging in criminal activity.

To someone who sees only the immoral side effects of addiction, and not the person struggling, it can be all too easy to genuinely think that someone who faces addiction is a morally bankrupt individual. This stereotypical belief often isn’t true, and doesn’t tell the whole truth about addiction.

Belief 2: “Addiction stems from mental illness.”

Less than 15 percent of survey respondents, 58 individuals total, answered that addiction grows out of a pre-existing mental illness. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other mental disorders can drastically alter someone’s mood, patterns of thinking, and behaviors, often rendering them unable to maintain their physical and psychological well-being.

Addiction doesn’t always have roots in mental illnesses, but it often leads to the development of them. The debilitating weight of depression or anxiety can certainly drive someone to find an escape through drugs or alcohol, but any euphoric high they experience will likely be short-lived. As their mental illness worsens, someone may use drugs or drink alcohol in increasingly larger amounts to avoid their disorder — a behavior that almost always ends in addiction.

It isn’t always a mental illness that precedes addiction, however. Experimental or occasional drug use can quickly spiral into a substance use disorder. Addiction can alter all manner of internal thoughts and feelings, and someone who recently developed a substance use disorder may feel frustrated with themselves, and angry at their inability to stop. Continuing to use drugs or alcohol to quiet these difficult emotions only makes matters worse. As it progresses, addiction can slowly chip away at one’s psychological health, to the point of them being left with a mental disorder that’s just as debilitating as their physical addiction.

Mental illness and substance use disorders often spur each other’s effects, making life miserable for someone who faces both disorders. Regardless of which came first, mental illness and addiction must be treated simultaneously. Offered at many accredited rehab centers, including The Recovery Village, dual-diagnosis treatment incorporates mental health counseling into each program of care. Through medication management (if necessary), daily individual counseling sessions and group therapy meetings, individuals are empowered to heal from addiction, mentally and physically.

Belief 3: “Addiction is a choice.”

A sizable 28 percent, 115 survey respondents, believed that addiction is a choice. This belief may seem plausible at first, as a drug or alcohol addiction often starts out with a series of choices. Trying an illicit substance once or having one too many drinks are choices, but addiction is another matter entirely. A substance use disorder isn’t as simple as a decision and isn’t something anyone would choose willingly.

Combatting the “addiction is a choice,” stigma, research points to the fact that addiction can stem from biological factors. Some people may be genetically predisposed to addiction, such as when someone in their family history was addicted to drugs or alcohol.

The overwhelming effects of addiction can speak to the fact that a substance use disorder is anything but a choice. Addiction causes compulsive drug seeking and usage, despite someone’s better judgment, even if the consequences are extremely painful. Addiction is characterized by an inability to stop using drugs or alcohol. Someone facing addiction likely understands that they are essentially poisoning themselves, and they usually don’t want to continue using drugs, but they feel like they can’t stop. Many people facing alcoholism or a drug use disorder feel completely controlled by their addiction, and powerless to stop it.

This hard truth about addiction is echoed in many recovery stories, including that of Dr. Tim Huckaby, medical director for the Orlando Recovery Center. He recalls how debilitating his opioid addiction was, to the point where he was even using drugs in the operating room. “…I remember promising myself all the time, ‘We’re not going to do this again, we’re not going to do this again,’ but before the day was over, I was injecting [myself with] fentanyl,” Dr. Huckaby said.

Belief 4: “Addiction is a disease.”

Holding the most votes, 43.86 percent, 175 respondents, choose the statement, “addiction is a disease.” Not only was this the most chosen response, but it was the only answer that accurately defines addiction.

The Real Definition of Addiction

Drug addiction is a chronic brain disease and a complex condition that causes compulsive drug use, despite negative consequences. Drug and alcohol use can rewire the brain’s reward systems, inhibiting normal decision-making abilities and causing continued substance use. Addiction is characterized by an inability to stop using substances, and often requires professional treatment to overcome.

Even though 175 people recognized the real definition of addiction, 225 respondents did not. Without knowing the details, it can seem easy to slap a label on addiction, or make a sweeping generalization about its root cause. However, it’s often far more complicated than most people realize. This outcome mirrors that of a larger societal reality: addiction is often misunderstood. So, the question remains: what will it take for the public to realize addiction is a deadly disease?

Overcoming Addiction Means Treating a Disease

A drug or alcohol addiction isn’t the result of moral decay, and it doesn’t always grow out of a mental illness. Despite popular belief, it isn’t something most people choose, much less a lifestyle people want to maintain. The simplest definition of addiction is that it’s a chronic disease that deserves quality treatment.

Because drug addiction isn’t a choice, it takes more than a quick decision to overcome one. Like any other disease, ending an addiction often requires professional treatment. Evidence-based, compassionate care helps people thrive beyond addiction at The Recovery Village. To facilitate true healing, The Recovery Village treats addiction’s underlying causes, not just its outward symptoms. Treatment at each center takes a dual-diagnosis approach to care, balancing medical assistance alongside counseling for co-occurring mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

Your Addiction Doesn’t Define You

Addiction can permeate every area of your life, to the point where you feel it’s inseparable from your identity. However debilitating and demoralizing your substance use disorder may seem, it doesn’t define you, and it’s not a death sentence. You are never too far from the kind of care you need. If you or a loved one face a drug or alcohol addiction, you don’t have to bear the burden alone, and effective treatment is available. Addiction doesn’t have to be the end of your story — start a new chapter with an individualized treatment program at The Recovery Village. There are plenty of facilities in this nationwide network to choose from, and each center can formulate a unique, evidence-based care plan that empowers you to heal from the inside out.

Not sure where to start? Nervous about taking the first step toward treatment? You don’t have to make the decision alone. The Recovery Village’s representatives understand your apprehension because many of them once faced addiction themselves. To speak with someone who can empathize with your journey, and offer hope for your future, call 877.805.3793 today. You’ll be able to talk to someone who can discuss your addiction with you confidentially, and recommend a treatment facility, and program, that can help. Your recovery is possible — reach out today to learn more.

a woman in a black cardigan smiles at the camera.
By – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.