It may seem impossible to feel compassion for an addict who puts drugs before everything else. Many believe that those who choose to ruin their lives with drugs probably deserve whatever life they get. What’s important to understand, though, is that for the addict, drugs aren’t really a choice. Most addicts will tell you they would rather not be addicted to drugs, and yet, they do not stop abusing them. For someone who isn’t an addict, this is hard to understand. You’re a drug addict and you want to stop, but you don’t? No, it’s more like, you want to stop, but you can’t.
Compassion for Addiction Requires Understanding the Disease
It’s easier to feel compassion for an addict once there is an understanding that addiction is a disease with a biological origin. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is defined as a "chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her." Substance abuse affects the part of the brain that controls both judgment and decision-making. This part of the brain is taken over by compulsion, so that an addicted individual continues to use drugs even when life begins to spin out of control due to substance abuse. It’s impaired brain function that fuels decisions to drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, to steal in order to support an addiction, or to refuse recovery in spite of the obvious indicators.
We treat people with cancer and heart disease with compassion, not ridicule or disgust, and we offer medical intervention, knowing that these diseases are not the fault of those who have them. Compassion for an addict is as called for as it is for a cancer patient. However, compassion doesn’t mean enabling the addict or ignoring the consequences of the condition. What it does mean is an overall understanding that addiction is not a choice, it’s a disease.
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