One silver lining of the opioid crisis in the US has been to bring the problem of addiction into the open. A lot of people have been personally affected by the opioid epidemic and their experiences have changed many people’s opinions about what addiction is and who struggles with substance use. Along with greater media coverage of the causes of substance use problems, attitudes are slowly changing.
However, there is still a long way to go and some of the persistent myths about addiction prejudice the public against people with substance use disorders and make people with substance use disorders less able or willing to seek help. Some common myths about addiction include the following.
One of the most pernicious myths about addiction is that it’s a choice. This myth is dangerous because it implies that anything that happens to someone with a substance use disorder, whether it’s job loss, divorce, health problems, incarceration, or death, is their own fault. In this view, any sort of punishment is permissible and anyone who wants to avoid the consequences of substance use should simply quit.
In reality, it’s not so simple. While people who use drugs and alcohol typically choose to do so, no one chooses to become addicted. Many, and perhaps most, people who develop substance use issues begin using drugs and alcohol at a young age, sometimes even before adolescence, when they have little, if any awareness of the potential consequences. This behavior is often influenced by dysfunctional family dynamics, peer pressure, or nascent mental health issues, such as ADHD, OCD, depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia. In short, addiction is typically influenced by forces beyond our control and once we realize there is a problem, it’s already very hard to quit.
Similar to the belief that addiction is a choice, many people believe that addiction indicates a lack of willpower or even a weak character. They think that quitting is mainly about showing a little grit and toughing it out. As discussed above, addiction typically has deep roots, including childhood environment, mental health issues, and genes. People do try to white-knuckle recovery but they typically don’t get very far.
In order for recovery to last, you have to get at the underlying causes of addiction. This means treating any co-occurring mental health issues as well as addressing trauma, which is incredibly common among people with substance use disorders. Recovery also entails learning essential skills to regulate your emotions and behavior and improve your relationships. It requires a good support system and healthy lifestyle changes too. Most people need a bit of help to do all of this.
You’ve probably heard this saying and it’s problematic for two reasons. First, the language is stigmatizing. Labeling someone with a substance use disorder an “addict” is common but also counterproductive. It implies that addiction is the person’s defining–and perhaps only–characteristic. Indeed, it implies they are hardly even a person but rather something more like a drug-seeking missile. Stigmatizing language compounds the shame of substance use and makes it harder for people to seek help.
Second, this saying implies that recovery is not really possible, that no matter how much effort you put into turning your life around, you’re always just one drink away from unraveling. Such cynicism about recovery can make you reluctant to even try, much less persist when things get challenging. In reality, people do make lasting change with the right attitude and the right help.
We all have some stereotype of someone with a substance use disorder, and while there are probably people who fit that stereotype, it doesn’t even come close to encompassing everyone with a substance use problem. If the opioid crisis has taught us anything, it’s that anyone can develop a substance use issue under the right circumstances. While you might suspect the guy begging for change under the overpass has a substance use problem, you might not suspect the lawyer who lives in a nice house or the grandmother who was in a car accident last year.
In fact, people who are professionally successful are often just as capable when it comes to hiding their substance use problem, at least for a while. Sometimes even friends and family don’t suspect someone has an issue. One of the reasons so many misconceptions about addiction persist is that it’s a largely invisible problem.
If you’re old enough, you might remember the “brain on drugs” commercials of the 1980s. Although those commercials are typically remembered with derision, the idea that too much drugs and alcohol can fry your brain still persists. This can make it hard to recover because some people feel like the damage is done, that they’ve ruined their brains, and no amount of effort will make them whole again.
In reality, the picture is more complicated. In some extreme cases, such as early-onset dementia or Korsakoff syndrome, which typically only happens after decades of heavy drinking, brain damage is permanent. There is also some debate over whether the structural changes that often occur in your brain after a period of addiction are ever fully reversed.
However, we also know that brains are highly plastic, meaning the structure will change, depending on what we ask our brains to do. With persistent effort and the right help, you can train your brain to focus, to regulate your emotions more effectively, to weather cravings, and to feel better overall.
Many of the myths about addiction are the result of victim-blaming while others pass as “tough truths.” However, these can perpetuate the stigma of addiction and make it harder for people to get help. It’s crucial to remember that people with substance use disorders are first and foremost people and that they are often people in pain. What’s more, recovery is possible.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that addiction isn’t something anyone chooses. Few people realize how they got into their particular mess and they rarely know how to get out. That’s where we come in. We use a variety of evidence-based methods to address the root causes of addiction and lay the foundation for a long recovery. To learn more, call us today at 833-801-5483.
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