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Addiction: It’s more than just choice

May 30, 2011

A couple of losses in the entertainment world this past week has made me think a little more deeply about addiction. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the element of choice in the development and treatment of addiction.

The power of addiction

Gill Scott-Heron (April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011) was seen as a pioneer amongst hip hop artists, and an active voice in the fight for social justice amongst blacks in the US during the 60’s and 70’s. One of Heron’s greatest battles, though, took place within himself: his battle with addiction.

During the ‘90’s, Heron would often vanish for a few days at a time, binging on alcohol and drugs and staying in flophouse hotels (where rooms are rented out on an hourly basis, and barely larger than two cubicles). In 2000, Heron was sentenced to 18 to 24-months in an inpatient treatment centre for possession of cocaine and crack pipes. He was allowed to proceed with his European tour, but had to return to the facility when he finished touring. He did not. So, he went to jail, sobered up, and was released on parole shortly thereafter. On his way to the next tour, Heron was charged again with possession of cocaine.

Jeff Conway (October 5, 1950 – May 27, 2011), who played Kenickie on the TV musical Grease, battled an addiction to painkillers and opiates. Conway also appeared on three seasons of Taxi, but left because his addictions were getting the best of him. Just before appearing on his very first episode, for example, Conway was doing drugs in his dressing room and ended up being too high to perform. As a result, his co-stars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd had to take turns sharing Conway’s dialogue.

The reason for mentioning these two examples is because their stories speak to the power that drugs and addiction have over the individual. Many argue that addiction is a choice; that addicts choose to use alcohol and drugs. Yet, when we look at the lives of these two individuals (and countless other celebrities who were enslaved by addiction), we begin to see the insidiousness of the disease. It creeps up into one’s life, eventually leading them to sacrifice career, money, family, and their health for another dose of the substance. With so much at stake, their desire to use alcohol and drugs is overpowering.

Heron and Conway’s careers could have been more successful if drugs were not a part of their lives, but their continued use despite negative consequences is a hallmark of addiction. When the compulsion to use is more important than the consequences of use, then we have lost the ability to choose freely. In the end, there are many factors involved in the development of addiction. While it may appear to be simply about “choice” for those of us on the outside, for addicts, it is much more difficult.

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth.

(Richard Amaral, Ph.D., is a registered psychologist in private practice. He works with children, youth, adults, and families. Visit the About Me tab for more information or to book a session.)


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