The reason so many people battling addiction don’t end up getting help is because they are often misunderstood, sometimes even by their primary care physicians.
Certain myths about addiction have been propagated for well over a century despite loads of scientific evidence that dispelled these false ideas years ago.
Here are six such myths and their corresponding realities.
Myth: Addiction is a moral failing.
Reality: Addiction is a disease based upon many things, including genetics, mental health and physical dependency. President Obama1 and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy2 even have called on Americans in recent months to get this very incorrect myth out of their heads.
“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs,” explains the National Institute on Drug Abuse on its website.3 “They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will.”
Myth: Addicts are hedonists who only want to have a good time instead of living a responsible, disciplined life.
Reality: This couldn’t be further from the truth. While the first or second time a person tried an addictive substance may have been in the context of a party, addicts are among the most miserable people on earth. They know their lives are messed up, but they can’t stop using because they don’t want to face the mental or physical pain associated with withdrawal. Because they feel bad about using, they keep using — it is a vicious cycle. Perpetuating that cycle using shaming tactics is sure to lead them to the grave instead of to treatment.
“Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to. Fortunately, researchers know more than ever about how drugs affect the brain and have found treatments that can help people recover from drug addiction and lead productive lives,” NIDA reports.
Myth: Addicts are in denial about their alcoholism or addiction problems.
Reality: Most addicts reach a point of realizing they have a problem sooner than you might think. Yet the stigma of the disease causes some people to look unfavorably even upon those who “comes clean” about their substance abuse problem, especially if they drank or used with them. This prevents many people from seeking help.
The truth is, when people harp to others about being in denial about a drug or alcohol problem, it often is the case that those people themselves have a drug or alcohol problem and are projecting their own denial onto others. The true measure of a person is whether they respect themselves enough to seek help. What other people say or think, in the end, shouldn’t be the ultimate determinant as to whether someone seeks help. Self-respect should be the true motivator.
Myth: Alcoholics Anonymous is the only way to get sober, and you must be religious for it to work.
Reality: The notion of “AA or the highway” fell apart long ago. New research suggests that those with substance use disorder with opioids generally have not seen as much success with 12-Step programs.4 In fact, true recovery begins with acknowledging underlying conditions that are causing someone to drink. This includes trauma, but also anxiety and depression. About 78 percent of people with a substance use disorder also have a mental health disorder.
It is true that a support network, after spending time in a treatment center, is vital to staying sober. But there are other groups who support people in recovery besides AA. These include SMART Recovery, LifeRing, Women for Sobriety, SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety), individual cognitive therapy and other independent support groups.5
It also is not true that for AA work, you must be religious or believe in a higher power that is a deity. People have successfully used anything and everything to represent a higher power for them.
Myth: If I truly had a problem with drugs or alcohol, I would not be so successful in my professional life, making lots and lots of money, being promoted, etc.
Reality: Many people thrive in their professional lives even when they are in the height of their addictions. People often use professional work as just another way to cope and avoid addressing their real issues. It’s not rocket science. This is called “burning the candle at both ends,” and at some point, the candle burns out.
Myth: People with alcoholism and addiction issues need to learn some self-control. That’s all it really takes to get sober.
Reality: Most people who live with an alcohol or substance use disorder have suffered great trauma. In fact, one in four people already have experienced it by the time they are a teenager.6 Often, they never have acknowledged that trauma, even if it is glaringly obvious to clinicians even after only 10 minutes with a new patient.
Other people may have a mental illness such as bipolar disorder, and so they are constantly seeking to “medicate to the middle” as opposed to live a life of highs and lows. They may alternate between booze and cocaine, for example. Eventually, such substances can take a serious toll on the brains of these users, particularly those with co-occurring mental health conditions.
Per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately 8 million adults in the U.S. had substance abuse and mental health disorders happening at the same time according to 2010 data.7 This also is known as dual diagnosis. The percentage of people with a substance use disorder who also have mental health problems has been estimated to range from 45 percent8 to as high as nearly 80 percent, as estimated by Jesse Sandler, founder and CEO of MySoberRoommate Inc. and a former care coordinator at UCLA Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, in an interview with Foundations Recovery Network.
Sadly, with the stigma associated with mental illness being even worse than the stigma associated with being an alcoholic or an addict, taking that first step and seeking help is difficult and takes courage.
Finally, genetics play a huge role in both addiction and mental illness. You have no control over the genes you are born with. But you do have control over seeking the many treatments that can help people with alcohol and drug addiction. And today, many medicines are available to lessen the sting of withdrawal – even from heroin – and help keep people sober longer.
Relapse does happen for many people. But relapse should not be considered a failure. For most, it’s nothing more than a stumble on a rocky road to recovery that is hard traveled, but well worth the journey.
1. Anderson, L. (2016, March 30). Obama affirms at drug summit that addiction is a disease, not a moral failure. Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2017, from http://jjie.org/2016/03/30/obama-affirms-at-drug-summit-that-addiction-is-disease-not-moral-failure/
2. Clarke, T. (2016, Nov. 17). Surgeon General calls for action to fight drug, alcohol abuse. Reuters. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-surgeon-general-addiction-idUSKBN13C0OX
3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015, July). Addiction Science. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2017, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/addiction-science
4. Heitz, D. Rehab International. Authors argues shaming addicts is harmful, all wrong. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2017.
5. Heitz, D. Recovery Support Alternatives: When Should Someone Throw in the Towel on AA, and what other Support Alternatives are out there? (http://www.dualdiagnosis.org/recovery-support-alternatives-someone-throw-towel-aa-recovery-programs/
6. Dual Diagnosis. Psychological Trauma and Drug Addiction. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2017, from http://www.dualdiagnosis.org/psychological-trauma-drug-addiction/
7. SAMSHA. (2016, March 8). Co-occurring disorders. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2017, from https://www.samhsa.gov/disorders/co-occurring
8. SAMSHA. (2010). Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2017, from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs2014/NSDUH-DetTabs2014.pdf
Written by David Heitz