I have a lot in common with author David Sheff.
He's a journalist. I'm a journalist.
He's a parent. I'm a parent.
His son struggled with heroin. My son struggled with heroin.
Sheff and I were both drawn into the bleak and dangerous world of addiction in the worst way possible. We watched it drag our children into the dark of night. We almost lost them. And now we are advocates for change. Determined parents have a way of getting loud.
I shared my story, “A Thousand Hail Marys to Florida,” in The Oklahoman on Mother's Day 2011. Sheff has turned his advocacy into a full-time national crusade. He first wrote “Beautiful Boy,” a New York Times best-seller, which helped raise the level of awareness about the disease of addiction.
And now, his new book, “Clean,” is a must-read for all American families struggling with this disease. And from my own personal experience, that includes most every family in one way or another. If it is not someone in your immediate family, it might be a distant relative, friend or co-worker.
I hear it at least once a week. Someone approaches me quietly, saying, “I read your story. It's my story, too.”
“Clean” will hold your hand if you just found out your child is in over his head.
Sheff is not standing on the sidelines listening to society rebuff alcoholics and addicts. The subtitle of his book, “Overcoming Addiction and Ending America's Greatest Tragedy,” is followed by red type on the inside jacket. It reads, “Addiction is a preventable, treatable disease, not a moral failing. As with other illnesses, the approaches most likely to work are based on science — not on faith, tradition, contrition or wishful thinking.”
An investigative journalist by trade, Sheff explores addiction and recovery with a critical eye. He does not dismiss traditional 12-step programs, but makes the point, “The existing treatment system, including 12-step programs and rehabs, has helped some, but it has failed to help many more.”
In the pages of “Clean” you will find evidence woven with raw emotion.
In a chapter titled “Addicts Aren't Weak, Selfish, or Amoral — They're Ill,” he ponders a question that has weighed heavily on my mind. “Maybe some people dismiss the idea that addiction is a disease until it hits their family,” he writes. “When it does, they embrace the concept because it exonerates their loved ones or themselves. It's easier to believe that a person's behavior is a symptom of an illness rather than a series of reprehensible choices.”
He continues, “This isn't an issue subject to ‘belief.' We don't believe cancer is a disease. We know it is.”
Addiction is a disease
Sheff outlines the facts of why addiction is a disease:
“A disease is ‘an interruption, cessation, or disorder of a body, system, or organ structure or function,' according to Stedman's Medical Dictionary. It's ‘a morbid entity ordinarily characterized by two or more of the following criteria: recognized etiologic agent(s), identifiable group of signs and symptoms, or consistent anatomic alterations.' Addiction fits every one of these criteria.”
He covers the brain science and outlines clearly how drugs and alcohol alter brain function. He writes about brain scans, scientific research, neurotransmitters and anatomical changes. Sheff does a brilliant job of explaining complicated facts in a digestible way.
There are those who reject the disease theory. They still see drug and alcohol addiction as a choice.
To them Sheff writes, “When an addict takes drugs, it appears to be a choice. One of the many reasons people reject the idea that addiction is a disease is the mistaken belief that people don't cause or contribute to ‘real' diseases. But they do: Eating fried chicken and pork rinds and doughnuts contributes to the onset and progression of heart disease and diabetes; smoking leads to lung cancer and emphysema. If people don't exercise, they can cause or worsen cardiovascular disease; if they spend too much time in the sun, they develop skin cancer. In fact, it's possible to argue that choice plays a larger role in some diseases than it does in addiction.”
Sheff's message is that addiction should be treated like other diseases. It needs research and widely available evidence-based treatment. He challenges the War on Drugs. We imprison thousands upon thousands instead of treating their illness.
In Oklahoma, the top five reasons for incarceration center on drugs, state corrections officials have noted.
In a recent interview, Sheff talked about his findings on prevention as well as treatment. He stressed the importance of early diagnosis in mental illness. His son, as well as mine, was ultimately diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. Many suffering from mental illness will try to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. He wrote in the book, “More than half of all addicts have other mental illnesses that either caused their addiction or made it worse. We must diagnose and treat those other illnesses — something we rarely do now — before we can successfully treat addiction.”
A second group he pointed to includes young people with learning disabilities. When your view of the world seems different from those around you, drugs and alcohol often make uncomfortable people feel more comfortable in their own skin. He stressed the importance of helping young people learn to cope with stresses in their lives. He said we have to give children practical tools.
Sheff challenges the recovery community and challenges current treatment models. His ideas are thought-provoking. Most importantly, Clean challenges conventional wisdom and tries to bring addiction out of the shadows and into mainstream America. He is elevating the conversation.
Sheff is standing up for addiction. I am standing up for addiction. Like I said, we have a lot in common.
By the way, my son is doing well today. Thanks for asking.
Addiction is a preventable, treatable disease, not a moral failing. As with other illnesses, the approaches most likely to work are based on science — not on faith, tradition, contrition or wishful thinking.”
From his book “Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America's