The Medical View of Addiction
Medicine has struggled to understand addiction. This may be because it’s not entirely a medical problem. But science doesn’t consider spiritual aspects, and for the purposes of this discussion I’m willing to leave those aside.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the “bible” for diagnosis by professionals. The current version is DSM-V. Not surprisingly, the previous version was DSM-IV. The newer version introduced some major changes to the way substance abuse disorders are diagnosed.
DSM-IV, issued in 1994, generally offered two categories of substance abuse disorders: substance use disorder, and dependence. These corresponded to chronic abuse of a substance, and physical dependency on the substance. There were codes for various substances, distinguishing for example between opioid dependency and alcohol dependency. The DSM-V (2013) combines there and streamlines the diagnosis. As this summary explains, DSM-V
does away with separate “dependence” and “abuse” diagnoses and combines them into “substance use disorder.”
The current version sees substance abuse as a spectrum rather than two separate conditions.
While this does make diagnosis easier, it appears to me to move substance abuse treatment backward by failing to recognize the complexity of factors at play.
For example, let’s consider physical dependence. Anyone who takes opioids (or other physically-addictive medication) over a long period will become physically dependent. It doesn’t matter whether they began using for pleasure, or if they were prescribed the drug by a doctor because of a medical need. They will need the drug to avoid going into withdrawals, which are typically both painful and disorienting. And in the case of alcohol (and certain other drugs), withdrawal can be life-threatening. Someone dependent on alcohol, for example, will crave it. And the cause of this craving is biological: they’ll go into withdrawals if they don’t get it. This is what DSM-IV described as “dependence.”
Yet dependency alone does not indicate whether that person will return to the drug once separated from it. When the physical dependency is relieved through a withdrawal process, medically supervised or not, there is no further need for the drug. Many people, once relieved of their dependence, take what might be described as the sane response: they never touch it again.
On the other hand, let’s consider what is sometimes described as “risky use.” A person who is not dependent on a substance nevertheless seeks it out and abuses it. The cause of this is not physical but psychological. Whether they seek pleasure or to kill the pain of some past trauma, the drug serves a purpose in their lives. They choose to pursue it of their own free will. This is what DSM-IV described as “substance use disorder.”
Interestingly, substance use disorder does seem to be a spectrum. Some people are able to choose to quit of their own volition. Others need help to quit. And some pursue their obsession with the substance, as Alcoholics Anonymous observes, “into the gates of insanity or death.”
These two, very different, facets of substance abuse are combined in DSM-V into a single spectrum. Yet the opioid crisis should show us the fallacy of this “improvement.”
One of the popular news items in the opioid epidemic is the number of people who began using because an opioid was prescribed by their doctor for a medical condition. (Here’s an example.) This theory presumes that chronic physical pain is the cause of opioid use that results in dependence. And this may well be for some people.
Yet many, perhaps most, opioid addicts struggle with a condition I can only describe as “addiction.” Yes, they are physically dependent. Yet once separated from the drug, whether through rehab or incarceration, they return to it despite its adverse effects on their lives. Not because of physical pain, but because of a psychological obsession with what the drug does for them.
At the very least, in these people we can see an overlapping of two distinct conditions: dependency and an obsession to use. These are not the same. One is physical, the other is psychological. Both need to be treated for successful recovery. Yet without recognizing the difference between the two conditions, how can they be treated?
This is true for any drug user. For a successful result, a person who is dependent because of chronic pain must be treated differently from one who is not dependent but seeks the drug by choice. Yet in the case of the addict, who has both conditions, treating one or the other is simply pointless. Not only is it ineffective, but the failure of this approach erodes confidence that recovery is possible.
And recovery is possible! While success with opioid addiction recovery from a medical perspective remains dismally low, tens of thousands have recovered through other, non-medical methods. These include Twelve Step groups like Narcotics Anonymous, religious based programs like The Bridge Ministry, and many others.
Because when withdrawals end, that’s when the real healing begins. Now that we don’t have a physical need, how do we live without the psychological need? Medicine doesn’t do that. Even psychology tends to fall short in offering resources.
Perhaps this is because they don’t really understand what an addict needs, because the vast majority of medical professionals have never experienced it.
But those who have been there and recovered do know. It is to them we should look for answers. Oddly, that seems to be the one place science hasn’t looked. Which may be why their understanding of addiction and recovery sometimes seems to be moving backward.
For more on addiction, read my book, The Soul of an Addict, available in Paperback and Kindle editions.