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Addiction or Excuse?

Public shaming is counterproductive and simply wrong

Whether it’s food, alcohol, or sex, there are a number of people who react strongly to hearing that someone has engaged in self-destructive behaviors because they are an addict by saying, “Don’t use addiction as an excuse for your behavior! Take responsibility!”

This concept of an “addiction excuse” is relatively new, and while it captures the imagination of those who are hurt, angry, or frustrated by the behavior of an addict, or by someone who lacks basic understanding of addiction, it simply doesn’t hold water for people who are addicts or those who work with people who struggle with addiction. People who speak about addiction as a “convenient excuse for bad behavior” or a “way to not take responsibility,” don’t comprehend what addiction is, and what the experience is like for the person who struggles with it.

Addiction is a psychological and physiological disorder. Even for “process addictions” such as those related to eating, sugar, sex, gambling, and stealing, there is strong scientific evidence that the neurological pathways related to dopamine are activated similarly to an addiction to cocaine. So addiction is not something made up by people to explain something away, it is a real condition, with both biological and psychological underpinnings.

For the vast majority of people who suffer from an addiction or impulse control disorder, acknowledging an addiction is one of the most difficult steps they will ever take. Most are in denial for years, believing in the “free will” that addiction naysayers speak about; addicts want to believe they are in control, and can stop any time they want. Many struggle for years to gain that control and feel deep shame when they fail, again and again.

Acknowledging an addiction, therefore, is an incredibly important first step. No problem can be solved if the problem is not acknowledged. Until someone admits, “I have lost control of this situation and can’t stop myself,” they cannot possibly be open to learning and working on the steps it takes to change their behavior. To the addict, acknowledging an addiction may be the most difficult, shameful, and scary step they take … but is also a crucial first step in saving his or her life. In fact, rather than being about shirking responsibility, acknowledging an addiction is the first step to taking responsibility.

As a society, we must stop shaming them further by telling them that acknowledging their addiction is an “excuse” and that they should “take responsibility for acting badly” and just feel ashamed. Instead, addicts must be supported in their first step and invited to take the many steps— psychological, physiological, spiritual, and emotional—that must take place for them to become well.

It may be that part of what people are reacting to is the overwhelming list of addictions that we hear about these days. People have begun to feel as if it is an overused term, and that there simply can’t be so many people in our society addicted to so many different things. Sadly, this is also not something that is made up. It doesn’t take much work to look around and see the sheer numbers of people who are addicted to food, shopping, electronics, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, and the myriad of ways available to us to avoid the profoundly beautiful but sometimes acutely painful process of being human.

Photo illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images