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Although formally recognized by the medical community as a disease and classified as a mental illness by the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual, addiction continues to garner a stigma closely associated with the belief that sufferers must possess a moral character flaw that spurs their compulsion; therefore, they are incapable of being cured until they change what is fundamentally wrong with them. Adding to this virulent mix are pop culture parables, such as the reality shows Intervention and Addicted, which capitalize on individuals suffering from a psychiatric illness and typically portray addicts as self-destructive, self-pitying beings who are in dire need of a major dose of moral nutrition. In doing so, these illustrations directly contribute to the misconceptions surrounding addiction by propping up stereotypes and making recovery seem as neat and simple as a few weeks at a far off ranch.
As any advocate will tell you, addiction, like any other psychiatric illness, is a multifaceted disease that transcends every socioeconomic category and requires holistic treatment. Adding to this chorus recently is Chiara de Blasio, daughter of the eminent Bill de Blasio, current Mayor of New York and a rising star of the Democratic Party.
Following her video testimonial that went viral over the holiday season, Ms. de Blasio further details her struggles with alcohol, marijuana, and her reliance on narcotics to manage her depression and anxiety. Writing for the website XOJane, Ms. de Blasio comes across as an ordinary youth, albeit one who hails from privilege and whose father is the leader of what is arguably the most powerful city in the world. However, rather than skirt around these issues, Ms. de Blasio addresses them head-on remarking, “I was surrounded by love, but I always felt less than…Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking I was simply ungrateful. Yes, I was. But a lack of gratitude wasn’t my only problem. I was the problem. I was not born a happy person.”
The importance of Ms. de Blasio’s essay cannot be overstated as she strives to deconstruct the myths surrounding addiction and mental illness. By alluding to research that demonstrates that genetic factors largely determine an individual’s disposition, Ms. de Blasio illustrates that while addiction may be exacerbated by environmental stimuli its roots are ultimately biological, making it a chronic illness. This belies the notion that addicts must suffer from some form of moral depravity and simply lack the will to stay sober.
Moreover, Ms. de Blasio is herself emblematic of the way addiction and mental illness permeate all races, classes, and creeds by stating that: “Some people believe that it is impossible for people who come from backgrounds like mine to suffer from the diseases of depression and addiction…I am here to tell you that is not true. Mental illness does not discriminate. However, that does not mean that there isn’t hope for each and every one of us.” Through its deeply personal tone and imagery, Ms. de Blasio’s essay is a powerful reminder that neither social nor financial capital makes one immune to psychiatric illnesses that are manifested in both the downtrodden of Manhattan’s streets and the scions of the city’s Mayor.
We have come a long way since 1950 when the American Medical Association finally classified alcoholism as a disease, thus allowing other types of addiction to follow suit. Just over the last decade our understanding of addiction has become deeper and more sophisticated as scientists have focused their attention on the biological origins of the disease. With the aid of fMRIs and PET scans researchers have been able to peer inside the minds of addicts and thereby discover which regions of the brain are responsible for galvanizing compulsive behaviors and inhibiting reasoning. This targeted approach is also being applied to illness ranging from depression to schizophrenia in the hopes that by isolating the pathological roots of these illnesses, science may one day be able to deliver preemptive cures that can make psychiatric illness a relic of the past.
As this scientific dawn approaches we are reminded that the work to ameliorate the stigma surrounding addiction and other forms of mental illness remains unfinished. At these times, Ms. de Blasio words ring particularly true, for as she says, “There are challenges; there always will be. But every day, I focus intently on progress. It’s progress—not perfection—that’s important.”
Chaya Himmelfarb resides in New Jersey. She is a longstanding member of Painted Brain and a contributor to Painted Brain News