Our lives changed the day we began looking inside ourselves for ways to move towards more joy and less suffering for us and those around us. We took ownership of the good and bad from our past and learned that if we came from a place of inner strength we could frame much of our future. The lessons and necessary mentoring that led to us reshaping our experiences happened within the context of addiction treatment. This treatment for us, and many others, consisted of working on ourselves with the guidance of people who had re-built – or built for the first time – daily lives rich in meaning and social connection.
Prior to this awakening, we spent many disastrous years looking outside of ourselves for solutions to life’s complexities. Encouragement came from the mental health system; to look to pills and therapy modalities to make us “normal” or “fit in.” Ultimately, we sought external solutions in very dark and unhealthy places. Responding to emotions for us meant looking to disease-model psychiatry and addictive behaviors in order to be ok with our worlds.
The last several years we have sat with painful emotions from time to time and have continuously learned from our past experiences. A practice we simply had never done. Our emotions and feelings had always been something that needed to be erased with psych drugs or in other ways. Our emotions were signs of our being broken. People who had walked through the fire we were currently walking through came into our lives and taught us invaluable life lessons. The most poignant and constant lesson was the idea that we are responsible for ourselves. This message sent us on a journey seeking healthy ways to channel our best selves. Meditation, yoga, healthy foods and nourishing relationships have helped us maximize our human experience. It has been important to us that we cultivate a sense of spirituality and a connection to something more significant than our individual lives.
The mental health system conveys a different message. The diagnostic process strips people of personal agency. After being diagnosed, people are often told to lower life expectations and avoid stress. Emotions are viewed as signs of disease to be medicated away. Therapies are often used to try and mold us into people others want us to be. The outcomes of this approach have been tragic.
Filled with sadness and concern, we have been watching the addiction treatment world moving away from the philosophy that saved our lives. “Medication assisted recovery” is rapidly becoming the first option for people dealing with addiction. Rehab facilities that we respected and have referred people to have recently employed full-time psychiatrists. Funding for Methadone and Suboxone “treatment” is readily available to providers. Various psychiatric drugs are used at an increasingly alarming rate in rehab facilities.
Advocates and others calling addiction a disease have played a role in this disturbing shift in philosophy. The reasons why advocates want addiction framed as a disease are understandable. They feel a disease model will make it easier to get recovery supports funded by insurance companies (parity being a goal). Identifying addiction as a disease might also garner more empathy and understanding for addiction experiences – leading to less discrimination.
The problem is that when you use disease language and ask for parity you might actually get what you ask for. Parity means addiction will be treated equally under the medical model. In this country, that means drugs. Drugs mean huge profits for big pharma and ultimately a paradigm shift. This was an unintended consequence partly resulting from people’s advocacy – most of whom rebuilt their lives within drug free frameworks. It seems that the language of addiction is being hijacked by big pharma.
We are witnessing the erosion of a process that has been effective for many. What is happening is eerily similar to what happened within the “mental health field.” Drugs that were designed for short term use are being prescribed for years. Drugs with serious “side effects” are being prescribed as necessary to treat this “disease.” New drugs are appearing at a high rate.
Maybe the biggest concern is a shift away from a self-responsibility approach. For us, the shift from looking outside of ourselves to inside was pivotal to our personal transformations. People have recently said to us that for their addiction treatment they, “just need to take their medication.” People are giving up their personal agency and not being encouraged to tap into their inner strength. People are not sitting with their experiences and learning from them. They are not learning to feel their emotions. They are not looking into why they developed an unhealthy relationship with a substance or behavior. Instead, they are looking for personal salvation to come from the empty promises contained in pill bottles.
It was not that long ago that we felt anger and sadness that people dealing with emotional distress were not given the same options as those dealing with addiction. We hoped that the way we ultimately dealt with our suffering would be available to everyone. Instead, the destruction that comes from looking externally to professionals for medical solutions to human experiences is becoming common place in addiction treatment. For those wondering what the potential consequences of treating addiction as a medical condition are – we encourage you to spend time looking at the disastrous outcomes of the disease/medical model within the “mental health” context.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.