Addiction is as much a culture as it is a disease. What’s more is that, as is the case with any culture, when someone outside the culture of Addiction tries to understand it, they often misunderstand and misjudge what they think they see.
While it can be difficult to define culture, I see it as a collection of shared meaning systems. That is, a culture is a group of people who relate with each other and the outside world through a set of beliefs and behaviors that they share and mutually understand. Culture may be influenced by ethnicity and/or race, but is mostly demonstrated through language and actions.
For example, it can be easy to look at a family who uses heroin together and think, “Boy, that’s really awful.” In my opinion, though, I think it’s a mistake to come to that judgement. It’s better to understand how a father and mother can use heroin with their sons and daughters. You see, using heroin serves a purpose for families such described above and becomes a way of belonging within that family. Really, within the greater community with which the family belongs, there are probably several families who use opiates intergenerationally. Heroin (and other opioids) mean something to those who use and before we can even being to present other options to the family, we must understand what heroin means. My guess is that it’s a great way to numb out from their greater reality….
So, as a treatment provider, my advice to anyone encountering addicts, try not to judge their behavior, try to understand it from their perspective (hard as that may be to do). Perhaps in understanding it, we can then redirect the meaning to healthier behaviors and meaningful thoughts. I can safely say, though, that if we continue to judge addiction without understanding its culture, we will continue to watch our communities die, not from addiction, but from ignorance.