Drug and Alcohol Abuse and Addiction – 6 Common Myths
If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to alcohol or drugs, chances are you’ve heard a lot of conflicting things about your "problem". Unfortunately, this is frequently an emotionally charged topic. The lines between reality and fiction get very blurred when so many well-meaning people are quick to offer their opinions – often presented as facts – based on their own personal experience, the experience of someone they know, or something they read or saw on TV.
For example, perhaps family members or friends have scolded you for not being able to stop using – as if it were merely a bad habit. Or maybe you’ve been told countless times that only lazy people or "losers" become addicts. If only you had more self-discipline or willpower you’d get your act together and stop using.
It would be great if admonitions like those reflected the reality of substance abuse and addiction. In fact, if they did, there’d be little need for the countless drug rehab programs throughout the country.
Understanding the truth about substance abuse and addiction can be very helpful when it comes to finally getting on the path to recovery once and for all. Following are a few of the most common misperceptions and myths, along with information to help dispel them.
Myth #1 – Anyone can quit using or drinking – if they really want to.
Even though the vast majority of people will give lip service to the idea that addiction is a disease or illness, it’s amazing how many people (including many addicts) believe differently deep down. They really regard it as a personal weakness – a really bad habit, a frequent tendency to "over-indulge", or a lack or morals. In other words, anyone who really wants to quit should be able to – with a little willpower and some self-discipline.
This is one of the main reasons so many addicts feel an incredible amount of shame and often strive so hard to hide their addiction. Perhaps you’ve experienced the judgmental words or critical, condescending looks from others. You may have gotten angry at yourself for your inability to stop, despite numerous attempts. You wonder if everyone is right in thinking that you’re a weak, undisciplined person.
Most experts today agree that an addiction to alcohol or drugs is a disease – a serious medical condition that has nothing to do with a lack of self-discipline or personal weakness. In fact, research has shown that alcohol and drug use changes your brain structure and chemistry. Over time it becomes impossible to control the cravings and the drive to keep using. This is because the part of the brain associated with self-control has been altered, causing addicts to engage in self-destructive behavior that seems so illogical and senseless to anyone on the outside looking in.
It would be wonderful if resolve and willpower were all it took to overcome an addiction or serious problem with substance abuse. However, professional drug and alcohol treatment, combined with a commitment to recovery, has helped thousands of addicts become clean and sober – and remain that way.
Myth #2 – Addiction and substance abuse are basically the same things.
While addiction always involves the abuse of a substance, many people who abuse substances aren’t addicts. Unfortunately, the terms "abuse" and "addiction" are often used as if they mean the same thing. Let’s take a look at the primary differences between them:
If you have a "substance abuse" problem, it means you keep using even though you’re aware that it’s causing problems in at least one area of your life (e.g. your work, your relationships, your health, or your finances). You haven’t reached a point where you can’t quit, but you don’t want to. The substance continues to have the same pleasurable effects as it did when you first started using, and the pleasure outweighs the consequences.
If you have an "addiction", however, you’ve become dependent on the substance – physiologically and / or psychologically. The cravings are intense and you can’t stop, even though you may have tried many times. You also need more and more of the substance to get high. In fact, it may no longer provide any actual pleasure, but you need it just to function and / or to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
Myth #3 – The vast majority of addicts and substance abusers come from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Substance abuse and addiction affects people from all walks of life – from those living in poverty to the wealthiest 1% of the population. One of the differences is that in middle to upper-income families, there are typically more resources at hand and the problem is more likely to be hidden from others. But the problem exists just the same. Given the right set of circumstances, everyone is at risk – at least to some degree.
Myth #4 – Most addicts are irresponsible, lazy teens and young adults who dropped out of school.
While a fair percentage of addicts may fit this stereotype, it definitely doesn’t apply to the majority. In fact, a surprising number of educated, highly respected, and even well-to-do adults struggle with substance abuse and addiction as well. This includes CEOs, doctors, retired individuals, PTA presidents, and successful business owners. They may not be using street drugs like meth or heroin, but a significant percentage abuse or are addicted to alcohol or prescription drugs.
The risk for adolescents and young adults may be slightly higher due to ignorance and peer pressure. This is one of the main reasons why even those regarded as responsible, "good kids" are susceptible.
Myth #5 – Only a fool becomes an addict.
This is another unfortunate myth that perpetuates the stigma that accompanies addiction. As mentioned earlier, under the right circumstances, everyone is vulnerable to becoming an addict. No one is above it. Factors like accessibility of and exposure to the substance, personality characteristics, genetic predisposition, social environment, stress, medical or mental health issues can all increase a person’s risk.
Many "smart" individuals end up addicted to a substance due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or making an impulsive decision in a moment of vulnerability or mere curiosity. With some substances, such as methamphetamines, it takes very little to quickly become addicted. Additionally, many otherwise responsible, intelligent individuals become addicted to prescription medications. Tolerance and dependence can easily develop with certain prescription drugs if caution isn’t taken. Once that happens, stopping on their own becomes extremely difficult if not impossible – and often downright dangerous as well.
Myth #6 – Addicts have to "hit rock bottom" before treatment can be effective.
It’s certainly true that a huge crisis, such as almost dying from an accidental overdose or losing their home or family, is what makes some addicts finally break through their denial. However, it’s certainly not a requirement in order for rehab to be effective. Many addicts desire to stop using, but they may feel hopeless, trapped, or too ashamed to reach out for help.
Sometimes all it takes is helping them realize they have options and that their addiction doesn’t define them. Understanding that addiction is an illness and not a personal weakness can make a significant difference in an addict’s openness to treatment.
While rock bottom can be very motivating, it’s actually much better for addicts if they get into treatment before things get that bad. Knowing that they have a worthwhile life to return to once they finish rehab can be highly motivating. Losing everything (or feeling that they have) can be demotivating and also increase the risk of relapse for some addicts once they leave rehab.
Like most things in life, the myths and misperceptions associated with substance abuse and addiction stem from a lack of knowledge and understanding. It’s easy to assume the worst when you’re on the outside looking in; when you haven’t "been there" yourself. Even if you are struggling with substance abuse or addiction you may have found yourself believing some of these myths – because you’d heard them so many times that you thought they were facts.
Hopefully, now that you have a little better understand of substance abuse and addiction, you’ll look at yourself – or your loved one – in a different, more compassionate light.