HEALTHY LIVING
20/10/2015 7:40 AM AEDT | Updated 20/12/2016 12:07 PM AEDT

We Wouldn't Shame Lamar Odom For A Heart Attack. Why Do It For Drug Use?

People with substance use disorder are intensely suffering.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Lamar Odom, pictured March 5, 2013. 

According to the latest reports, Lamar Odom, the former NBA player who was found unconscious in a Nevada brothel on Oct. 13, is breathing on his own and can even get out of bed. Authorities confirmed that cocaine was found in Odom's system, which indicates that he had been using it in the days before his hospitalization

Now that he's improving, it's time to talk about how we react to medical emergencies like Odom's. While Odom has publicly distanced himself from the label "drug addict," the way that the public talks about his drug use affects millions of people struggling with addiction. 

Substance use disorder is a chronic brain disease, full stop. But you wouldn’t know it from how drug abuse is dismissed by some people, especially when the addict is rich or famous. Some in the public might question the person's judgment, or assume their resources might insulate them from the consequences of their behavior.

Imagine saying those things about other diseases: "Why can't Lamar beat cancer? Isn’t he rich enough to afford treatment?" or "How come Lamar keeps having lupus flare-ups? He should know better than that." Those statements are clearly ridiculous, but we approach people struggling with substance use disorder in the same way.

People with substance use disorders are often shamed, blamed and criticized for their conditions in the public discourse. This stigma affects everything from the micro to the macro: A person might decide not to seek help because seeking help would mean facing such judgment, and federal and local governments underfund treatment programs and jail people for drug use.

“Research has convincingly shown that serious addiction is a chronic, relapsing medical illness, similar to hypertension or Type 2 diabetes,” Thomas McLellan, founder of the Treatment Research Institute, told The Huffington Post. "And like so many other chronic illnesses, addiction, too, is an acquired illness – repeated unhealthy behaviors ultimately bring about a disease that is very difficult to self-control."

It's worth noting that while "addiction" is a common term to describe when drug use interferes with a person's health and lifestyle, "substance use disorder" is a broad medical term used to describe a range of mild to severe drug dependency.

Relapse rates for substance use disorder are similar to those of other chronic illnesses, McLellan adds, but those other illnesses don’t have the same stigma and public shame as addiction.

“We would never see the same public blame game about an individual with hypertension having a heart attack,” he concluded. McLellan speaks from experience; in addition to being an expert researcher in substance use disorder, in 2008, he lost his son to addiction.

Serious addiction is a chronic, relapsing medical illness, similar to hypertension or Type 2 diabetes.


It's time to stop pretending that substance use disorder is mostly a choice, and it's time to stop shaming people who struggle with it. Here are five key facts about the disease that should make us think twice before questioning a person’s integrity, self-control or willpower because of their substance use disorder.

1. Family history matters.

People are more likely to use drugs if someone in their family uses drugs. If a person's parents are alcoholics, they are four times more likely than the general population to have alcohol problems as well.

Substance use disorders can be inherited due to a complex mix of social, environmental and biological factors. Maybe a person lived with an adult who was using, and learned about the habit from them. Maybe a child's parents were absent most of their life due to addiction, but despite all best intentions, the child wound up in the same place many years later. Even if a person was raised apart from parents who used drugs -- say, in the case of adopted children -- they are still twice as likely as the general population to use drugs, suggesting a strong genetic predisposition to substance use disorder also.

While we don't know what causes the condition in any one individual, Odom has been frank about his strained relationship with his father Joe Odom, who used heroin in the past and was not around for much of his childhood. After an NBA league suspension for drug use, Odom appeared to be aware of the inheritability of substance disorder: “A lot of times I’d think about it and say, ‘Damn, am I fighting my father’s demons?'" he told the Miami Herald in 2003. 

2. Willpower alone cannot beat substance use disorder.

Experts agree that individual willpower alone is not enough to beat substance use. Instead, treatment programs that are tailored to each individual’s drug use patterns and social and psychological problems are what’s needed to help people recover from substance use.

"Drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions or a strong will," states the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "In fact, because drugs change the brain in ways that foster compulsive drug use, quitting is difficult, even for those who are ready to do so."

3. Substance use disorder doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor.

An estimated 24.6 million Americans age 12 and above -- or 9.4 percent of the population -- reported using an illicit drug within the past month, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. And when it comes to binge drinking, that number rises to 60.1 million, or 22.9 percent of the population.  

While most illicit drug users are employed, notes the survey, poverty and a lack of education make people more vulnerable to a substance use disorder. This lack of resources also makes it more difficult to enter recovery.

But being educated and/or wealthy doesn’t completely shield anyone from the effects of substance use. Wealth makes it easier to enter treatment and access other resources for recovery, but it could also prolong addiction, notes J. Carlos Rivera, executive director of White Bison, Inc., an advocacy group for Native American substance use recovery.

"Money can help a person struggling with addiction to access the treatment resources they may need to overcome addiction,” Rivera told HuffPost. “Unfortunately, having an unlimited supply of money can also contribute to an individual’s substance use."

Laszlo Jaress, a program development coordinator with the national advocacy group Faces and Voices of Recovery, emphasizes compassion for the person behind the tragedy.

"Just because someone has found success, fame and wealth does not mean they will have a magic bullet for dealing with their substance use," said Jaress, who is also in recovery from substance use. "Addiction does not discriminate and recovery for each person is unique."

4. People with substance use disorder are intensely suffering.

Because substance use disorder is a disease that affects the brain, it is also a mental illness. It can alter the brain’s structure and chemistry in serious ways, which can lead people to prioritize drug use over all other aspects of their lives. People with substance use disorders are twice as likely to have a mood or anxiety disorder compared to the general population, and the relationship goes both ways. For instance, one-third of people with major depression also have an alcohol problem, notes WebMD. And in many cases, the depression came before the substance use, indicating that people might be turning to substances to self-medicate.

5. Relapse is part of recovery, and recovery is possible.

While Odom is currently fighting for his life, it’s important to remember that his drug use doesn't define him. He was able to play successfully in the NBA for years, get married and take care of his family.

NIDA notes that people can learn to manage drug substance use disorder, just as others learn to manage chronic relapsing diseases like asthma or heart disease. They also note that relapse is a common part of recovery — not an anomaly.

"And as with other chronic diseases, it is not uncommon for a person to relapse and begin abusing drugs again,” according to NIDA. "Relapse, however, does not signal treatment failure—rather, it indicates that treatment should be reinstated or adjusted or that an alternative treatment is needed to help the individual regain control and recover."

However, change does not happen overnight, Rivera adds, and will often require a complete transformation.

"Entering into recovery requires a complete lifestyle change which may include relationships, family, friends, environment and employment,” he concluded. "Making changes mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually takes a great deal of support and understanding from those around them."

Here’s hoping that Odom's recovery ushers in a new way to discuss substance use disorder and helps the millions of Americans struggling to know they are not alone -- and they are not judged, either. 

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