An Expert Explains Addiction as a Disease

While most experts and most medical associations recognize alcohol and drug addiction as a disease many of our readers disagree.  This blog and our Facebook group Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) are focused on helping those who need organ and tissue transplants get them.  That’s our purpose and our mission but many of those who don’t believe in the disease concept of chemical dependency hold strong opinions that if a person is dying of liver, kidney, heart or other organ failures and if that person has a history of alcoholism or chemical dependency they should not be eligible for an organ transplant.  The argument is, “They chose to become an addict and they should suffer the consequences.”  This topic has received more discussion than any other that we have introduced in the nearly four years Bob’s Newheart has been publishing blogs.    We hope this guest blog will help dissenters have a better understanding and perhaps more compassion for those suffering from the disease of addiction. 

Prior to my retirement to get a heart transplant in 2007 I was a private communications consultant specializing in health care issues.  One of the great rewards in my 25 plus years career was getting to meet and interact with some of the leading medical professionals in the world.  One such person, who I am proud to call a friend, is Dr. Marvin Seppala, Chief Medical Officer for the Hazelden foundation in Center City, Minnesota.  Hazelden is one of the leading and largest non-profit addiction treatment centers in the world with several U.S. Locations.  Dr. Marv is not only a highly respected physician he is also a psychiatrist who specializes in helping those who suffer from addictions.  You can read more about him and about Hazelden at  

The following blog was written by Dr. Seppala  for the CNN Health website and he has graciously given his permission for us to reprint it here.   Your thoughts and comments are encouraged and welcome.

Bob Aronson

(Bob is the bob of bob’s Newheart and has been in recovery from alcoholism since 1982.  He received a heart transplant in August of 2007)


I learned of four addiction-related deaths this weekend. Three were people I knew in Portland, Oregon, recovery circles and the fourth was Amy Winehouse.

Tragically one must get used to such news if you spend a lot of time with those who have this disease. Whenever someone with addiction dies, I grieve the lost potential and wonder about the limitations of our ability to address this cunning, baffling and powerful disease.

I am also humbled by my own experience with addiction and recovery, and grateful for the help I received.

It seems nearly impossible to believe that people with addiction would continue to use drugs and alcohol to the point of death, but that is what people with addiction do:  They  deny both the consequences and the risks of using. As we continue to learn about addiction, we’re understanding  more about  why addicted people behave the way they do. But that’s little solace for friends and family.

Addiction is a brain disease, and our knowledge of it has expanded significantly, which has informed our treatment programs and altered our perceptions. We know that addiction resides in the limbic system, a subconscious part of our brain that is involved with memory, emotion and reward.

We refer to this area of the brain as the reward center, as it ensures that all rewarding or reinforcing activities, especially those associated with our survival, are prioritized. The reward center makes sure we survive by eating, drinking fluids, having sex (for survival of the species) and maintaining human interactions.

In late stages of addiction we can see how reward-related drives, especially those for survival, are reprioritized when people risk their families, their jobs, even their lives to continue to use drugs and alcohol. The continued use of the drug becomes the most important drive, at a subconscious level and unrecognized by the individual, undermining even life itself.

When a methamphetamine-addicted mother makes the nightly news after neglecting her children for four days while on a meth run, we can’t comprehend how anyone could do such a thing and tend to think she does not love her children. She may have been going out for groceries with the intent to return home and feed her children, but ran into a dealer and started using.

Addiction took over, and she was driven by subconscious forces even though she loves her children as much as I love mine. Her love and her natural instincts to care for and nurture her children were overridden by her own brain, the reward system  reprogrammed to seek and use drugs at all costs. Unbeknownst to her, drug use has become the most important thing in her life.

When we witness the incomprehensible behaviors associated with addiction we need to remember these people have a disease, one that alters their brain and their behaviors. We tend to believe we all have free will, so it is difficult to understand how the addicts’ perception has been so altered as to drive them to destruction.

We also assume they can make their own decisions, especially when it comes to help for their addiction. In so doing we are expecting the person with a diseased brain to accept the unacceptable, that the continued use of drugs is not providing relief from the problem – it is the problem, and they need to stop that which has become paramount.

They are unable to make such decisions because their brains have been altered to prioritize use of the drugs, even above survival itself.

Relief of psychic pain, the real, unimaginable pain of addiction, is part of the problem. People have many reasons for seeking relief from pain; some pain precedes the addiction, but most pain is the result of the addiction.

The addicted neglect their primary relationships and they may lie, cheat and steal to continue drug use. And they know this at some level, they recognize their uncontrolled behaviors, but they can’t change, they can’t stop.

Hopelessness becomes a way of life. Self-loathing, shame and guilt become the norm as the consequences of continued drug use accumulate.

They use drugs to ease the pain, but the very remedy exacerbates the problem. The answer to their dilemma goes unrecognized due to the neurobiological changes that have occurred in their brains.

The good news is that treatment is effective and specifically designed to help people recognize the problem within. Most people are coerced into treatment for one reason or another; they may be facing legal issues, job loss or divorce.

With good treatment their likelihood for recovery and abstinence is just as good as the minority who seek treatment of their own accord. Unfortunately, less than 10% of those with addiction recognize they have it and seek treatment.

This is the primary reason people don’t seek help. Our largest public health problem goes unrecognized by those with the disease.

Every one of these deaths is tragic. They died of a disease that lies to them. Amy Winehouse had incredible musical talent that enthralled the masses, but she became known as much for her struggle with addiction.

We can safely watch such a tragedy, gawking as we drive by the destruction, insulated from the suffering and unable to help. But addiction is all around us and we need to respond to the rising death toll.

All of us are responsible for learning the truth about addiction, raising awareness and intervening for those who have this disease, knowing they are unlikely to be able to do so for themselves.   Dr. Marvin Seppala.


You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or  positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and lovePlease view our two brand new video “Thank You From the Bottom of my Donor’s heart” on You Tube at  This video was produced to promote organ donation so it is free and no permission is needed for it’s use.

Another important video is “A Transplant for Nurse Lori” this brave woman has Multiple Sclerosis and needs help paying her share of the bill for a procedure that can halt the disease in its tracks and even reverse some of it.  Watch the video at

Also…there  is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues.

We would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater  our clout with decision makers.


About Bob Aronson

Bob Aronson is a former journalist, a Minnesota Governor's Press Secretary and talk show host. For nearly a quarter of a century, he led the Aronson Partnership, a Minnesota-based communications consultancy that prepared corporate and government executives for crisis situations, regulatory testimony, media interviews and Presentations. Among his clients were all three U.S. Mayo Clinic locations, 3M, general Mills, CH2M Hill, the U.S. Department of Energy and scores more. In 2007 bob had a heart transplant after suffering from idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy for 12 years. Shortly after he got his new heart he founded the now 4,300 member Facebook support group, Organ Transplant Initiative. At the same time, he established the Bob's Newheart blog where he has posted nearly 300 columns on organ donation, transplantation and other health related issues. The Viewpoint blog was started in late 2016 and bears the name of the Radio Talk show Bob did from 1966 until 1974, when he resigned to become Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich first Press secretary. Bob and his artist wife Robin, live in Jacksonville, Florida with their two dogs, Reilly and Ziggy. Bob is also a woodworker and makes all of the furnishings for Robin's art festival booth. He also makes one of a kind jewelry or "memories" boxes that he donates to select transplant patients, caregivers, donor families and others who have somehow contributed to making life easier for the ill, the elderly and the less fortunate. Bob is in the final stages of editing two full-length novels that will be available on Kindle when ready for release sometime in early 2017. One is a sci fi novel about an amazing discovery near Roswell, New Mexico and you will be surprised to find it has nothing to do with the Roswell story everyone knows. It features a woman scientist who investigates impact craters for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Dr. Rita Sylvester and her female student intern. The other book is a political thriller that introduces a new hero to the genre, Fargo Dennison.

Posted on July 29, 2011, in alcohol and drugs and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Ashley Tenczar Curran

    I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Marvin Seppala’s blog post , and as a recovering addict of 12+ yrs, I have come to have enormous respect for Hazelden Foundation, and all of their work, literary resources, and their reputation in general for the success of treating addiction.
    This post really helped to clarify SO many of the misunderstandings about the disease of addiction. Bob is right, it is INDEED one of the leading topics of discussion, and debate, in our “OTI” group on FB. (Organ Transplant Initiative)
    When my husband found out rather suddenly that the Hep C he had for years had all but destroyed his liver, and he needed an orthoptic liver transplant, we were crushed. We had all the resources about HIV, and HEP C, but what we did NOT know was that a person who has Hep C, and has a history of IVDU CAN indeed get a transplant. Is it fair? I don’t know. I am not God.
    I suppose if it is fair that life long “chain” smokers get all the cancer treatment their body can handle, and it is fair that those who have eating disorders get treated for serious/fatal diseases related to morbid obesity, or anorexia.
    So, then, one would have to conclude that it IS fair that those who have addiction disorders (alcohol IS a drug), would get treatment, and ultimately, if needed, a new kidney, liver, or other organ to save their life.
    We cannot as a society, pick and choose which “disorders” and “vices” we are willing to accept, and treat, whilst allowing others to “lay in the grave they dug for themselves”.
    Since I cannot see people who are smokers being denied vital cancer treatment, and would never entertain that thought myself, I just cannot see how there can be any other choice BUT to treat ALL disorders and diseases, no matter how a person came to be sick with them.
    I realize that the cost of a transplant is upwards of anywhere from $300-$600,000.
    But has anyone done the math on what it costs for a person like a close family member of mine who had esophageal cancer, preceded by prostate cancer, preceded by cancerous oral cells that were removed.
    PET Scans, Cat Scans, MRI’s, endoscopy, so many more procedures, then Radiation, chemo, 7 hour surgery resulting in half of the esophagus and part of the stomach being removed…then there is t the ICU for 15 days, (Transplant Patients, on average, spend 4-7 days) (source: UNOS), and on and on it goes.
    One more thing I wanted to add. It is a REQUIREMENT that ALL CANDIDATES FOR TRANSPLANT (any transplant) CEASE their smoking…FOR GOOD.
    What is the point of transplanting, when the patient will continue smoking and potentially damage the organ, or get cancer?
    The Doctors that treated my family member told him there WOULD be complications after surgery. (pneumonia, check) and that he WOULD be in the ICU longer than 4 days (13 days…check), and they did NOT insist that he quit or they would not go ahead with the surgery.. I guess that is another discussion for another time.
    I have received GREAT benefit from the Hazelden Foundation “reflections” books, and I will be re-posting this message to everyone I can think of, including those who think some drugs are “not as bad” as others.
    Specifically, my own Mother believes that ANYTHING, including a tox screen for Alcohol, THC, and Cocaine is “way better” than a “heroin” positive result.
    We have a lot more work to do.
    It is so true that we as recovering addicts MUST “pass the torch” and educate anyone who will listen as to the REAL TRUTH about addiction, and the denial and sickness that infests those who are centered around the addict.
    Thank you very much Bob for getting permission to re-post this, and thank you for reading my , albeit “long winded” post, but this is something I am very passionate about.
    Ashley Tenczar Curran


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