Addicts deserve our respect

There was the death last week of a 21-year-old Marysville woman. Police suspected heroin.

There was the sentencing to prison earlier this month of a Lynnwood woman, a drug user who shared heroin with a friend. The friend overdosed and died.

And there is the story of Aaron Torrance, a recovering heroin addict, profiled in Sunday’s paper. Now $10,000 in debt, he lives in the long shadow of addiction, knowing that a single relapse could erase 21 months of hard work — the time he has spent sober, putting his life back in order.

Too often the image of addiction becomes that of the troubled pop star — some unsympathetic Lindsay Lohan, rich and boozy, at it again.

These local stories remind us addiction is a disease. It doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor. It is a tragic problem, one that demands our sympathy and respect.

Some people pull back from that idea — the idea of respecting an addict. As the argument goes, addiction is a character flaw, a problem that the addict brought on herself, and one with a simple solution: stop taking drugs.

Of course, the truth of addiction is not that simple.

Think of your morning coffee.

We’re not going to compare a coffee routine with addiction, or caffeine with heroin. That would be absurd. But still, think about how difficult it would be to stop drinking your morning coffee — the headaches, the fatigue, the stress. Let’s even say you have to quit, to lower your blood pressure. It would be hard, right?

Now imagine that when you have the impulse to drink a cup of coffee — when the headaches are at their worst — you can’t resist, even knowing your heart is at risk.

That is addiction.

At the most basic level, it is true that the only way to stop abusing drugs is to stop taking drugs. But drug addiction batters the human brain, challenging an addict’s ability to stop, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a branch of the federal National Institutes of Health.

Those changes are part of the reason why addiction is considered a chronic disease, like diabetes or heart disease.

Now let’s return to the idea of sympathy and respect. We show both of those to people suffering from other diseases — to those struggling with cancer or heart disease. We have an almost instinctive desire to care for, and care about, the sick.

We also must show that same care to those coping with addiction, a sickness that is just as vicious, just as ravaging and just as elusive to cure.