Ronald White should be applauded, despite his sense that it "might sound silly," for reminding us that education "(repeatedly) on the perils of substance abuse" should be one of the standard tools in our work toward prevention of chemical dependencies {''Knocked Out by Drugs,'' op-ed, Aug. 25}.

However, he would do well to allow us the opportunity to continue our own education about the addictive diseases. His statement, for example, that ''we owe no sympathy'' to someone who suffers "by repeatedly failing to quit drugs'' reflects two unfounded yet pervasive myths about substance dependence.

One misconception is that addicts and alcoholics who are attempting to abstain from mind- or mood-altering drugs want or need the sympathy of others. They do not. It is informed understanding and balanced empathy, not pity, that offers the chemically dependent person an emotional milieu in which he can best work on recovery.

The other myth is the concept that will power and moral integrity alone are enough to prompt a practicing addict or alcoholic to live without recourse to substances of abuse. Addiction and alcoholism are diseases. Relapse into substance abuse and denial of the disease process are two classic symptoms of the diseases.

We in the health care professions are always learning more about the the myths and realities of chemical dependency. One of our most important lessons to date is being taught to us by recovering addicts and alcoholics. Put simply, that lesson is this: as long as any addict or alcoholic has the desire to live drug- or alcohol-free, that person, no matter what his station in life or history of failure, can, with help, stop the practice of chemical abuse and live a happy and productive life.


Acting Chairperson, Department of Psychiatry

D.C. General Hospital