Nobody understands addiction. I am absolutely convinced of that.
Do I have any right to make that assertion? I’m not a physician or a psychologist. I’m not a therapist or a counselor. I have no educational background that would give me any credibility on the subject. So, how can I say that no one understands the problem?
The answer is: I’ve lived this shit.
Today is my younger brother’s birthday. Chuck would have been 63 years old. Instead, he died of a heart attack at the age of 49. That was the official cause of death, but his health problems were all related to his alcohol abuse. He spent the last decade of his life drinking himself to death.
Chuck was in and out of treatment for years. Nothing worked. He just got worse. I had a relative tell me after my brother died,
“I don’t understand why, after all the help he got, he couldn’t pull himself up by his bootstraps.”
Chuck was sick, really sick. Some people who are sick like that don’t get better. They just don’t. If somebody dies from cancer, nobody asks why they couldn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but we almost always ask that about an addict.
My brother probably had caring and competent professionals trying to help him to get healthy. I’m sure everybody did the best they could for him. The problem is that the human brain is extremely complex, and everyone’s brain is unique. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Every successful treatment plan is based on knowledge, intuition, and a certain amount of dumb luck. What works splendidly for one addict may be useless for another. To a certain extent, it’s always a crap shoot.
I know an elderly nun who worked in a refugee field hospital in Thailand back in the day when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were busy committing genocide right across the border from her operation. She came back to America with massive PTSD from her experiences as a nurse. That along with other factors made her seriously ill. The sister developed stomach cancer. She had an operation and chemo treatments. She still struggles with the disease.
I talked to her about addictions and told her about how hard they are to treat. She said that addictions, like her cancer, can’t be cured. However, she has done things in her life in order to function although she can never be completely free of her condition. The nun changed her diet to eliminate gluten. She takes her meds regularly. She has made efforts to deal with her anxiety and stress. She stated that an addict can do what she does: take action to alleviate a problem that will never really go away. Her point was that there is some choice involved on the part of the addict, just like on her part as a cancer patient.
That’s true. My brother had extremely high blood pressure. He refused to treat it with his meds, and it eventually killed him. I also have high blood pressure. I take my meds.
It bothers me when well-meaning people overly emphasize the free will that might be available to an addict. I have often heard folks say things like:
“They just need to learn how to make good choices” or “The guy lacks willpower” or “Those people want to live like that” or “They don’t have any morals”.
People with an addiction cannot make always good choices. The ones I have met have morals and they don’t want to live the “lifestyle” of an addict. A disease cannot be overcome by sheer willpower. Other help is necessary.
I don’t know why my brother died while other people have survived, and sometimes thrived. Nobody else knows why either.
Frank (Francis) Pauc is a graduate of West Point, Class of 1980. He completed the Military Intelligence Basic Course at Fort Huachuca and then went to Flight School at Fort Rucker. Frank was stationed with the 3rd Armor Division in West Germany at Fliegerhorst Airfield from December 1981 to January 1985. He flew Hueys and Black Hawks and was next assigned to the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, CA. He got the hell out of the Army in August 1986.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.