Approaching the disease of addiction with empathy, understanding

Approaching the disease of addiction with empathy, understanding

Imagine a compulsion so strong and a sickness so violent that you would risk your kids’ lunch money to find something that will make you feel better. Thankfully, most of us will never know what that feels like. Those of us without the disease of addiction can never truly understand what it is like to be a prisoner to a powerful drug like heroin or meth. As we celebrate Recovery Month, those of us at Marshall Health are committed to educating the community on how addiction works in the brain and why people continue behaviors, such as drug use, that seem so foreign to us.

We know that addiction takes over the brain’s risk-reward system. Addictive drugs work in the dopamine system, which is the pleasure-sensing part of the brain that is also involved in compulsion, risk-taking behaviors and impulsivity. Regular drug users lose their ability to objectively look at long-term consequences in relation to short-term drug use, which is one reason why harsh penalties do not deter drug use. For example, everyone who uses heroin knows it is bad for them and they could potentially die with their next use, but the drug changes their brain to minimize those concerns and prioritize further drug use. This is one of the reasons that prevention is so important, and why I am so honored to work with a community that is committed to tackling all aspects of the addiction crisis—from prevention, to treatment, to long-term recovery.

What people with addiction need is an ability to tell their story and, when they’re ready, to have a community willing to break down barriers to get them the help they need. We are all concerned about the addiction crisis and its effects on our community, but we know that bullying and demeaning those with addiction builds further barriers to treatment. As someone who treats addiction, it is frustrating to see people on social media stigmatizing and insulting their neighbors because that just makes the problem worse. It is often said that the opposite of addiction is not abstinence from drugs, but a connection to others. Building a community that is open and embraces people with addiction as our brothers and sisters is a community that will heal.  At the School of Medicine and Marshall Health, we are actively educating our staff, medical students and residents on how to treat others with respect, regardless of their past experiences, and to accept all patients with open arms.

Addiction is a disease that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It is a runaway train that takes everything you love and value. For this Recovery Month, we must honor and celebrate those who have broken the cycle of addiction; people in long-term recovery are some of the strongest people I know. At the same time, we must continue to reach out to those that still need help. We know that addiction is a treatable disease and one that the physicians at Marshall Health are dedicated to helping our patients fight every single day.

If you or a loved one need help getting started on the road to recovery, call PROACT at 304-696-8700 or HELP4WV at 1-844-HELP-4WV. Visit for more information about services and initiatives underway at Marshall Health and the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

This opinion-editorial was originally published in The Herald-Dispatch on September 24, 2019. 


Matthew Christiansen, MD

Dr. Christiansen is a primary care physician and an assistant professor in the department of family and community health at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.