Dr. Roger P. Watts is a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor who practices as a Chemical Dependency Professional II at a world-renowned treatment facility in
I like to think of the brain and the mind as being two entities with distinctly human qualities that are very relevant for anyone who is dealing with recovery from alcohol and other drugs. At the risk of being criticized by some as dividing the brain from the mind, it is important to point out that the brain is the physical organ of the body responsible for a host of human functions, and the mind is one of those functions. In other words, the mind is the output of the brain’s functioning. This separation is important in order to understand the nature of the disease of addiction.
Addiction is a brain disease, not a mind disease. Addiction effects the physical organ we call the brain, and it is the broken brain that has difficulty coping with the lack of alcohol or other drugs when a person stops using them. We call this difficulty the hallmark of chemical dependency or addiction. It is important to know that this addiction in the physical brain has certain side effects that affect the mind. The mind is the repository of our hopes, dreams, thoughts, ideas, morals, ethics, principles, reason for living, and willpower. Using drugs and alcohol causes these qualities of life to be suspended as the physical needs of the brain override the needs of the mind…the brain gets hijacked by the alcohol or other drugs.
These facts are not so interesting except when it comes to an understanding of exactly what it means to have the disease of addiction. Addiction is a disease of the brain, not of the mind. Problems within the mind – mental illness – may be caused by this physical dependence on alcohol or other drugs, but the disease of addiction is primarily a disease of the brain. We know this because an organ of the body (the brain) is changed (brain cells are altered by the drugs) and there are symptoms (intoxication, withdrawal, tolerance). This is the classic medical description of a disease and the disease of addiction certainly fits it. The illness within the mind that comes from addiction (loss of willpower, inability to make good choices, defensiveness, denial, etc.) is not the primary disease, but an after effect of the brain disease.
Mankind has been confusing this for centuries. There are even those today who do not agree with this analysis because they still feel that addiction is a disease of the mind…they are convinced that it is a lack of willpower, some moral failing, that causes a person to drink uncontrollably. Why else would we hear too often, “Why don’t you just say ‘No’?” or “Why do you drink even when there are consequences of that drinking?” There are others who feel that the “cure” for addiction lies exclusively in correcting the rational, thinking part of the mind’s functioning, i.e., that some people can drink or use other drugs in moderation and not suffer the mental or emotional consequences of that use, or others may stop entirely because the make up their minds that they will.
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Modern science knows that there is no known cure for addiction at this time. It remains largely a mysterious physical disease coupled with a psychological illness. We know the effects that these chemical poisons have on the nerve cells within the brain, but we do not know why some people are able to stop relatively easily and others continue to drink or take drugs despite known consequences. But, we are close to finding answers to some of these difficulties as science maps the genetic part of the brain disease through the human genome project and uncovers the deeply seated parts of the mind that contain clues to abstinence and long-term recovery.
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