June 10th, 2010, marks the 75th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first effective treatment for addiction. The American Medical Association began defining alcoholism as a disease in 1956. Not too long thereafter, they included other forms of addiction as well, but for some reason the disease concept of addiction has failed to gain wide public understanding.

This lack of understanding is exacerbated by some individuals who rail against the idea for their own reasons — often the fact that their particular livelihoods are tied up in other ideas. Of course, the Man On The Street tends still to consider alcoholics weak people who don’t have enough willpower to Just Say No.  And those drug addicts, well, they’re simply some kind of degenerate.

I have this to say about that: apart from family, my best friends are recovering addicts and alcoholics. My own wife is in recovery.  She got her degree at age 50, and is now an internationally-certified addiction therapist.  Furthermore, the most interesting people I know — virtually to a (wo)man — are in recovery too.  Statistically, addicts have IQ’s several points above the national average, and many are exceptionally gifted.

Addiction is an issue of brain chemistry, not intelligence, and most of us clean up pretty well if there’s not too much damage.  But, in its various forms, it is the number-one health problem in the United States and most other Western societies.  Addiction costs nearly half a trillion dollars annually in the US alone. We pay for lost productivity, broken homes, damaged potential, medical and social welfare costs, the costs of incarcerating a criminal population that is overwhelmingly afflicted with addictions, the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional or addicted family, and the other chaos that alcoholics and other addicts leave strewn about.

We need to understand that this is a disease, in order for us addicts to recover and, in the case of “normal” folks, to be able to understand those who suffer from it and support them in their recovery. Society needs to stop looking at alcoholics and other addicts as detritus, and needs instead to realize the potential that we represent. We’re not some old boot to be cast aside. On a simple basis of cost-effectiveness, society makes big money every time an addict gets clean. The average active alcoholic/addict costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars before they die. The average recovering addict contributes at least that, and often much more.

That ain’t rocket surgery, folks. It’s plain old common sense.

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