Chevy Chase’s relapse illuminates America’s deep stigmas with addiction
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Haven’t we all, at some point, literally laughed out loud from the brilliant comedy and humor of a  SNL skit or film? I will always laugh when remembering the scenes from National Lampoon’s Vacation or his guru-like “nanananananana” command of the golf ball in Caddy Shack.

Last week, after having again fallen victim to a relapse of unconfirmed severity, it was reported that Chase entered a rehabilitation center to again regain his sobriety, yet sadly and predictably it was positioned under the guise of a “tune-up”. What I want to draw your attention to is the need for his people to use a descriptor? An adjective? A modifier? A crutch? An excuse? A car needs a tune-up, a relapsed addict needs a complete overhaul.

If anyone could individually stand-up to the uneducated or bigoted masses that openly belittle and trash addicts, it is Chase. Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity to crush the stigma associated with addiction, his handlers were more concerned with the optics associated with addiction and in doing so committed a tremendous disservice by perpetuating the underlying belief that those who suffer from addiction have made a conscious decision to live life as an addict.  

The minimization of Chase’s life-threatening illness by describing his treatment admission as a “tune-up”, only serves to perpetuate the foolish myth that addiction isn't a disease. This action negates the positive and groundbreaking leaps, which have been made by the addiction treatment community.

The Scientific Jury Is In

Based on the tremendous data and scientific advances made over the past decade, we now have a deep understanding of the brain’s systems as it relates to our feel-good chemicals and how they work. Simultaneously, medical practitioners, scientists and treatment experts realized why real addicts, as Nancy Reagan declared, have no chance to "Just Say No!"  

That campaign, her personal contribution to the long-lost War On Drugs caused more misunderstanding of the illness than any single campaign in history because it mistakenly implied addicts have access 100 percent of the time to the power of choice.

Oh, and remember the egg commercial too?  "This is your brain" (showing a gorgeously cracked fresh American egg) which then flashed to a crackling hot oiled skillet with an irreversibly over-fried egg and the voice-over that stated "This is your brain on drugs," was also not true.

The brain, it turns out, is malleable. Our brain rewards us for doing things that further our survival. This is why running, eating when particularly hungry or sex feels so amazing. Other things —even non-vital experiences — like hearing a child's laugher, beholding a sunset or the sight of release our naturally occurring feel-good chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine and endorphins.

In addicts, this system is deregulated and they are not able to extract normal levels of pleasure out of everyday life. 

Cocaine use, for example, floods the receptors with serotonin and if used intravenously a person could experience 1000 times the maximum pleasure experience the brain is designed for.

When this is repeated over and over, the brain stops its own production because it recognizes the massive supply of the external source. So when the addict suddenly stops using, his brain isn't making any and even winning the lottery wouldn't remotely create a feeling of joy, much less seeing your child walking for the first time.

There's an innate internal discomfort for addicts. Alcoholics Anonymous calls it irritability, restlessness, discontentedness, boredom, fear, sense of impending doom, inadequacy. Alcohol and dope make that all 'go quiet.' Addicts are not trying to hurt others; they're relieving their own deep pain because it's rooted in the limbic system.

They are unable, at certain times, to leverage their forebrain, the home of logic and love and analysis of consequence to 'just say no.' The limbic says, 'you don't have to hurt this deeply right now, it's intolerable and I'm going to fix it, ergo the term Fix. Your brain  won't let you emotionally suffocate when there's a solution called a snort or a pill or a shot or the push of a plunger. It doesn't think about the kids or the taxes or the last detox. It says 'we're fixing this now at any cost.'

Greg Williams, Co-Founder of Facing Addiction, states, “People who have struggled with addiction don’t need shame or scorn, they don’t need to hide, they need compassion, empathy and support like any other health condition. “ 

Greg adds, “With more than 23 million Americans living in recovery from addiction — survivors of one of the most challenging health problems of our time — it is time we begin celebrating the redemption story from addiction with the same ferocity and repetition that we have told the addiction or relapse story.” 

Stigma is this old-school idea that addiction is not a disease but rather a form of idiocy, a lack of will power, sinfulness, weakness, gluttony, et cetera, but more than anything that it is a choice. For approximately 85 percent of the population, it is choice, yet projecting one’s own ability to "know when to say when" on everyone else is selfish and narrow minded. This mentality is perpetuated with the quips… "

Just pull yourself up by the bootstraps kid” or whisper to a coworker, "he can't handle his liquor," or "gosh, what a loser, she won't even stop for her kids." Behind this belief system is an wholesale misunderstanding of the entire reason addiction is a disease; a malfunctioning mid-brain or Limbic region.That's where core survival drives reside like the need to breath, eat, drink water, procreate... and for addicts, it's where he need to use lives.

Certainly addicts have a forebrain, the frontal lobes responsible for executive function such as values, quality of character, love, logic, reason; all the fabulous things that make us human. It's vital to understanding addiction that one knows that the limbic is more powerful than the frontal lobes. Don't believe me? Ok, make an executive decision, using you're amazing human forebrain to hold your breath indefinitely. Try it. There's no point right?  We all know we'll pass out and the limbic with begin breathing for us again. The same holds true for the sufferer.

No one slides into treatment for a slightly overdue errand or long-held appointment. So why did Chase’s people seek to minimize it? For you America, because there is a stigma attached to addiction. Those who are uneducated about addiction believe the fans, agents, directors and brands will think less of him. They believe that his admission needs protection. That he will be received as a washed-up drunk, a weakling, a loser who doesn’t care about hurting his kids and spouse, or that he’s a man who had it all and just suddenly woke-up and decided to throw it all away — by choice!

Chase you are not alone. There are over twenty-five million Americans who suffer from Substance Use Disorder and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s America’s number one accidental killer. This is not your choice and it is a life-long battle with a chronic disease, an illness, called addiction. Years ago, Chase had the guts to publicly admit to his addiction and the use of a wide-range of intoxicants including cocaine and alcohol. So why is there the need to minimize his illness now? Chase understands that he too will likely die if he fails to maintain recovery. It’s common to fall victim to relapse, like it is in the battle against many chronic diseases.

People don’t say, “I’m just getting a little Chemo for my cancer.” They say, “I am in the fight of my life.” Those who suffer from diabetes can’t just stop taking insulin. That same mentality must apply to addiction. Excuses don’t help anyone; in fact it is actually deadly to all of those who suffer. The proliferation of this mentality provides addicts with a false sense of reality and diminishes the severity of this illness. If someone suffering from addiction, or their family and friends, continue to hear reinforced over and over again that it is nothing, they will never take the steps needed to attain recovery. Instead, they will perish.  

We have seen this all too many times and most recently with Prince when media outlets reported that he was “pain managing” or that he might not have known about the mislabeled Fentanyl in the Aleve bottle — he knew exactly what he was saying. 

We live in an age of blame, unaccountability and acronyms…we love to see people fall, but to win the battle against the disease called addiction, we must start with the truth. It is a disease, not a conscious decision. 

In recovery himself, Ben Levenson has become one the nation’s leading and most trusted voices in addiction and treatment. He is founder of the world-renowned Origins Behavioral Healthcare and serves as the Chairman and founder of The Levenson Foundation a privately-funded philanthropic organization chartered, structured and managed to provide stabilizing financial, operational, clinical and geopolitical support to mental health and recovery-focused humanitarian activities around the world.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.