In early May, I’m speaking at an annual fundraiser for a large women’s center in Texas. Their mission is to provide housing and services to homeless and addicted women who are trying to rebuild their lives.
As I plan what to say, I realize I’ll be speaking to a rare kind of audience: People glad to show up where they know they’ll be asked to give money to help addicts and alcoholics.
Typically, you see, we’re not a group that easily evokes sympathy. Our cause doesn’t tug at the heart—or purse—strings the same way child hunger or breast cancer does.
And I get why. To the casual observer, addiction looks more like selfishness at full throttle than a progressive disease. We addicts tend to be stubborn, manipulative, and in many cases, criminal. Some of us are known for squandering what help we do receive.
No wonder we evoke disdain or distancing more quickly than generosity. Why would anyone want to throw good money after the likes of us?
Actually, I can think of several good reasons. More than two-thirds of American families are touched by addiction. It plays an enormous role in poverty, unemployment, crime, child abuse, and accidental death. The collateral damage is just huge.
On the positive side, many of us do recover. An estimated 20 million people today are enjoying long-term recovery.
Yet, despite these numbers, we don’t seem to have the collective will as a society to galvanize around this issue. It’s as if the stigma attached to addiction extends even to our willingness to invest in recovery. And I don’t see that changing until our compassion for the addict outweighs our aversion.
One of the biggest obstacles to such a shift is the erroneous belief that addiction is mainly a moral issue. Even though addiction is classified as a disease, many good people can’t get past the idea that addicts choose their sickness.
I get this. And it’s true that addiction usually begins with bad choices and risky behaviors. But trust me, no one sets out to become addicted. We set out to escape pain or feel better, unable—until it’s too late—to conceive of a force so great it could hijack our brain and steamroll our will power.
And who among us hasn’t felt desperate to change the way we feel? Who of us can be certain we wouldn’t have become addicts ourselves had we been born in another place or time?
My plea for empathy raises another important point. Like a lot of folks, I used to assume that addicts were perfectly happy getting high or wasted or what have you. I had no idea they actually suffered.
When I spiraled into my own alcoholism, I learned the awful truth. Few people are more miserable than an addict who desperately wants to quit, but can’t find a way to stop. Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to imagine what this kind of powerlessness feels like.
It feels like being stuck in a nightmare where you open your mouth to scream, but nothing comes out.
It feels like watching in disbelief as you begin to betray your conscience and your values, even as you pray to do the right thing.
It feels like knowing you’re hurting the people you love the most—and knowing you’ll do it again tomorrow.
It feels like losing your job, your driver’s license, your home, your family and marriage—and still not being able to quit.
It feels like coming to believe you must have been born for nothing, since that is what you are accomplishing with your life.
Imagine feeling all of that, and I bet you’ll agree that addiction isn’t something any sane person wants. And maybe it’s time to let mercy trump judgment.
P.S. Another post that helps bring balance to this issue is this one. That’s No Excuse.
P.S.S. Several of you are asking where I’m speaking. I’m at the Downtown Women’s Center in Amarillo, TX May 6. Here’s a link. (Tickets can be bought online in a couple days).