Addiction Is Not A Disease? Now You’re Speaking My Language!


My Mother drank herself to death: alcohol induced asphyxiation. She choked on her own vomit and died, alone. I was thirteen, she was 40. The last memory that I have of her is the smell of death which lingered in the vacant apartment where she took her last drink and her last breath.

It was the day after the funeral and my heart was as heavy as the casket which I couldn’t carry out of the chapel before saying my final goodbye at the cemetery. I felt empty. Empty like the beer bottles which were strewn about her apartment, ornaments of her morbidity. I remember picking up one of the empties and wrapping my hand around the brown bottle. Perhaps like her, I was looking for answers. Maybe she had found hers. I’ll never know. Though It wouldn’t be long before I would understand the misery of an empty beer bottle.

I never lived with my Mother. At the time of her death I was under the guardianship of my Aunt and Uncle. My Father was in a federal prison where he had been since I was 8. Like the death of my Mother the loss of my Father was abrupt. I came home from school one day and he was gone. Left in his place was one among the many women on the circuit of his love life. She sat me down and handed me a tape recorder. I pressed play and by the end of the tape I was all alone. I’ve rewound that tape and played it again many times since. It always ends the same.

The last time I saw my Father I was the one wearing handcuffs. My legs were shackled and I was flanked by two armed correctional officers. I had been granted a “compassionate” escorted temporary absence from a Federal prison to visit him in the hospital on his death-bed. Like he did, I was serving an 8 year penitentiary sentence, except this was my second time down below, for Robberies. The irony continues to mock me like the iron handcuffs I was wearing that day which restricted me from clasping his weak and feeble outstretched hand as he gasped for air. I can still taste the cruelty and humiliation I swallowed in those last moments before saying my final goodbye. His hungry blue eyes told me that he loved me and it was time to go back to prison. My father died the next day, alone in a hospital.

I didn’t become an alcoholic because my mother was a drunk. Nor did I snort cocaine and rob banks because my father was a felon. That’s too easy. I’ve got two beautiful nieces and a nephew who’ve run a similar gauntlet of trauma in their young lives and they haven’t chosen to obliterate themselves with substances. Just like the fact that every Vietnam veteran who returned to the United States of America after the war didn’t keep injecting themselves with heroin.

I also reject the idea that I have a disease, as tidy of an answer as that would be for me to account for the trail of destruction that I have carved out in the course of the last 14 years. The prescription of a lifetime of evenings spent sitting in some church basement and proselytizing myself to the doctrine of Alcoholics Anonymous tastes about as good as the coffee they serve at the meetings. I simply cannot “fake it till I make it”, nor do I care to submit my will to a power greater than myself as a precondition to restoring my sanity; especially not when I am told that this “power” can be as hackneyed as a Styrofoam cup.

At the same time, I wouldn’t exactly say that my relationship with drugs and alcohol was a choice. At times, it felt about as much of a choice as going without water for a couple of days and deciding to pass on a drink from the fountain. To keep with the analogy, try holding your piss for a couple of hours. I suspect you will eventually give in, lest your bladder burst.

So what the fuck? If I don’t have a disease and I can’t stomach the canon of the Twelve Steps, what is there left to do? In Narcotics Anonymous I am told that there are three places for me: “Jails, Institutions, and Death!” (to really appreciate this prognosis I suggest chanting it aloud in a group). I’ve already been to Jail and I am pretty sure that I have spent more time in treatment centres than a doctoral student who has all but completed their PhD has spent in a University. If my addiction is really a bogeyman who is “out in the parking lot doing push-ups and waiting for me” like my last NA sponsor observed, death doesn’t sound so bad (and they should probably at least give me a whistle or some pepper spray to protect myself).

This is where my blog starts. I’m 32 years old and I have spent the entirety of my adult life in the clutches of “addiction”. I’ve spent a total of 22 months in residential treatment centres, 8 years in the penitentiary, and many months in between on parole in a halfway house. I’ve been diagnosed and medicated for mental health issues and explored the deep recesses of my mind with certified psychologists and psychiatrists. I’ve tried AA, NA, CA, and I even have a BA in Sociology. I’ve tried religion, read the Secret, and, for a period walked the Red Road. Yet, like a child who places his hand upon a hot stove, I keep getting burnt.

My last dance with the devil was about three months ago. I couldn’t hold my piss and found myself once again in a hotel room in the company of another hungry ghost and a near empty bag of coke. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Repeat Offender Parole Enforcement (ROPE) squad had set up surveillance on the hotel. It must have tipped them off when I didn’t return to the halfway house the night before. I remember glancing out the window as we coke users are known to do about every 15 minutes or so and seeing a police vest. With nowhere to run but the bathroom I did what came natural. I hid in the shower and proceeded to smoke cocaine resin while the cops outside threatened to come in and taze me if I didn’t give myself up. It’s one thing to be high on coke and think that the cops are outside. It’s a whole different level of outrageous when they actually are. Considering how much cocaine I had ingested over that 12 hour period, the idea of getting tazed wasn’t sitting very well and eventually I walked my arrogant ass out of the bathroom and into a pair of handcuffs before being jammed in the back of a cruiser and brought to the local jail.

My Father used to tell me that I had the unique ability to fall in a bucket of shit and come out smelling like a rose. I’m not sure what to call this fragrance but after 1 month in a local detention centre and 3 months back in Federal prison the Parole Board decided to grant me back my release, thorns and all, on the condition that I attend yet another treatment centre. On the day of my release, like a kid from a five-star binder commercial I had resolved that “this year’s going to be different” and tried to go in with an open-mind. If I’m anything, it’s resilient. Nevertheless, I wasn’t holding my breath. I assume my parole officer wasn’t either. I doubt it was a compliment when he told the parole board that I could teach the program at the treatment centre in stating his opposition to my release.

Last Friday I finished the program. My parole officer was right, I could probably have taught it. Then again, just because you know the game doesn’t mean you can play. If I took anything away from the program it was a book that I was given to read authored by the Canadian Neuroscientist and former addict himself Marc Lewis. His book The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not A Disease is informed by the latest research in Neuroscience, his own struggles with addiction, and the narratives of former addicts whom he interviewed as part of his research. The fact that Marc Lewis uses the past tense to refer to his addiction issues and those he has worked with is telling. Rather than embrace and accept that identity, as is the de facto precondition for membership in most of the twelve step groups, Marc Lewis suggests a path forward from problematic substance use which challenges the medical establishments disease model of addiction and suggests that addiction is nothing more than a relationship, no different from falling in love, sometimes with similar consequences. The idea that one can become a person for whom drugs and alcohol are no longer a problem because they have mastered the narrative of their own life and merged past, present, and future, autonomously, for me, is revelatory.

After 14 years of being told that “I am like a man who has lost his legs”, a sick, but rationally calculating addict with no hope but to have a spiritual awakening in acquiescence to a higher power and that god damned Styrofoam cup of stale coffee and twelve steps written at a time when scientists still believed that babies can’t feel pain, Lewis is speaking my language.

In my next blog post I will be exploring Lewis’s refutation of the disease model of addiction with comments related to my own experiences. The journey of self-discovery continues.










10 thoughts on “Addiction Is Not A Disease? Now You’re Speaking My Language!

  1. Leslie, I was Marc Lewis’s editor for this book, and I know a promising writer/story when I see/hear one. Keep writing! Though 12 steps works for me, and I argue with Marc frequently about the difference between 12 steps as rigidly dogmatic (which has not been my experience, here in NYC, over 32 years) and as useful metaphor (the disease concept is not in the text; it was ‘dis-ease,’ a metaphor, which an early member of AA turned into a vehicle for marketing the concept of alcoholism as illness to the medical profession so they would devote more beds to treatment and develop a more compassionate stance, and then the profession ran with it as a justification to procure research funding) Marc’s thinking has deeply influenced mine. The point he makes that recovery involves building new neural networks via emotional/intellectual/physical/spiritual growth OF ANY KIND, is just a transformative way to think about it. Anyways, keep reading, keep writing, keep going forward. Good luck to you. Best, Lisa K.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Thank you from the bottom of my heart for such an encouraging and touching compliment. To hear this from the editor of Marc Lewis’s book? WOW! I will certainly keep writing and look forward to sharing my next blog post with you, Marc, and those who have taken an interest in thus far.

      On the topic of the 12 steps, and as readers will soon find out from me, I have actually been attending NA meetings. In fact I went to one today on my lunch break (brought my own coffee and styrofoam cup :p). It’s unfortunate, but as far as finding a fellowship of folks who share the desire to change their relationship to substances, even in a big city like the one I currently reside in, the options are limited. My tone towards AA and NA – 12 Steps, sardonic and seething as it was, also recognizes that for many people it does work and I certainly take your point regarding the dogmatism of certain groups. I’ll admit, I sort of feel conflicted when I criticize AA and NA for being stuck in the past and a bit anachronistic. The reason being is that it is quite likely that without the traditions (the ties tat bind the groups together) which are about as rigid as the Canadian constitution, its likely the groups would not have survived as long as they have.

      I’m glad to hear that you keep and open mind and that Marcs thinking has influenced yours. I certainly count him as one among the most influential on me, and I have just started to digest what he has to say. I feel like if Gabor Maté, Johann Hari, and Marc Lewis got together and wrote a book it could immediately supplant the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and the NA Basic Text! You should pitch that idea to them!

      Great to hear from you Lisa and stay tuned!


      Leslie Law


  2. Wow. Just wow. I wish you the very, very best of luck, strength, and inspiration. Yours is an amazing story already… I hope you keep writing it, keep living it, on more and more of your own terms. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Isabel,

      Thank you! Your encouragement is warmly received. We all have a story to tell, I suppose, and it makes me feel really good that a little snippet of mine could be inspirational in some way. I will certainly keep writing and I see that readership has increased since Marc Lewis decided to be so gracious and share the link to on his latest blog post. Feel free to share the blog post with friends or anyone who might be of interest and stay tuned for my next posting which should be on Sunday 🙂

      Bye for now!

      Leslie Law


  3. I’ve been counseling people for 25 yrs, and have worked with “mandated populations”. I can’t tell you how many people out there feel the same way you do. The problem is we don’t encourage self-empowerment in treatment, and especially if you’re mandated. Many people tell me the disease concept makes them feel helpless, and that’s not a good combo for work on trauma, nor for any healing.
    If you’re mandated, well, you’ve defiantly lost the freedom to choose how to get better, as you have to be told “what is best for you” and “go through the motions” to avoid jail/prison.
    Addiction is a human condition and it’s brought on by society’s expectations, demands, scars, stigma and judgement. I’m sticking to what people taught me (I’ve worked mostly with disadvantaged populations but some “famous” and “successful” people here and there). There’s no way it’s a disease.

    I’ve been reading Gerald May, in his book, Addiction and Grace from 1988, he said,”we are all addicts in every sense of the word” ” addiction is at work in every human being”
    In the Awakened Heart, he felt addiction was fed by society’s restrictive nature, because the human spirit is “irrepressibly radical” it seeks “the impractical and improper”. Totally agree.
    Good luck with your journey of self-discovery! yay!!


    1. Hi Katherine! I am definitely overdue for a post. In fact, one is on the way. Hopefully that will quell your anxiety 🙂 Glad to hear that folks are interested to read the notes I scribble from the underground.


  4. Thank you for sharing your story Leslie! Like you, Marc Lewis’ writing inspired me to change the way I thought and talked about addiction. That was more than 6 years ago now that I think of it. I now coach people that struggle with addiction. I will welcome your next post whenever it comes.


    1. Hi Jeffrey! I really appreciate your comment. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my notes from the underground. I think any thoughtful person who has encountered Marc Lewis in whatever medium, his book, you tube talks, scholarly writing, blog, or face to face psychotherapy is inspired by the optimism and achievability that is found in his description of addiction and the paths he articulates to move forward.

      As for the latest blog posts. You can find them here, sorry that you didn’t see them when you were linked to this post. I may need to take a look at the layout of my blog.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment. I welcome the opportunity to engage with folks who have read the blog. All the best!

      Leslie Law


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