In our last post, we introduced a new perspective on addiction. In Maia Szalavitz’s new book, Unbroken Brain, she argues that addiction is neither a chronic disease like Alzheimer’s nor a sin or transgression like grand theft auto. Rather, it’s a learning disability, closer to ADHD. What’s interesting about this perspective is that it allows that there are biological factors that influence the condition. However, it still offers the hope that there’s a way to manage it… to the point that it can become a strength.

You’re Not Inherently Wrong, Stupid, or Helpless

What we love the most about this perspective is that it relieves a lot of the self-blame, and stigma that’s unfortunately attached to addiction. Those who struggle with addiction don’t have to also struggle with feeling like there’s something inherently wrong with them, or like they’re stupid for not living their life in a way that seems easier to others. Rather, it’s about understanding that as someone who became addicted to a substance, a person is simply wired differently. They learned to find their basic human needs from an unhealthy source.

Like many learning disabilities, it can require training, creative solutions, and time to learn how to function effectively with an addiction. It can be difficult to overcome, and learn instead to get your needs and wants answered by healthy resources. It might also require learning more about yourself in order to understand that your needs and wants aren’t always the same as people who never struggled with an addiction, and finding creative ways to achieve your own goals in a different way.

What’s so amazing about the brain is that it’s adaptable. It’s always building new connections, destroying and creating, growing and developing. Just as we learned an unhealthy behavior, we can learn healthy behavior and manage our strengths and weaknesses.

Learning Disorders Manifest Themselves Differently As We Grow and Change

Another very interesting point that Szalavitz makes is that addictions usually change as we grow up. While most of them develop during the teens and early 20’s, they’re also overcome about 50% of the time (sometimes even without treatment) as we grow into adulthood. Why? Because that’s when our brain finally reaches full maturity, including, notably, its ability to exert control and moderation and reach full decision-making potential. It’s not a degenerative condition that gets worse and worse. Usually, it gets better.

Learning Disorders Also Come With Unique Strengths

One of the most hopeful messages of seeing addiction as a learning disorder is the way that it enables us to see that addiction comes with challenges, yes, but it also comes with strengths. For example, if addiction is persisting in a behavior despite discouragement and negative consequences, then it’s also something that’s essential for effective parenting, as well as for creative expression. Those energies simply need to be pointed in the right direction.

Every one of our patients comes with their own strengths and valuable things that they can contribute to the world. Addiction recovery empowers people struggling with addiction to direct their creativity, sensitivity, passion, and love to pursuits that give back and lead to good things in time.