Addiction: Shattering Six Common MythsAnna Ciulla
Addiction is a rapidly expanding universe filled with misconceptions and seldom understood by those outside its gravitational pull. Friends and family of people addicted to various substances are often mystified by the irrational extremes their loved ones go to in order to sustain their destructive habit, while society stigmatizes and criminalizes addictive behaviors to the detriment of otherwise good people caught in the grips of a chronic, relapsing disease.
One of the most prevalent myths associated with addiction is the myth of willpower. Many people simply assume that individuals struggling with addiction are lazy, lacking the willpower and motivation necessary to beat their compulsion to use. This couldn’t be any further from the truth. Although willpower and motivation play an important role in confronting and overcoming addictive behaviors, they play a secondary role to healthy brain chemistry.
Addiction, especially long-term addiction, radically alters brain chemistry and damages many of the executive functions necessary to operate autonomously and maturely. It also depletes necessary vitamins, nutrients and neurotransmitters needed to maintain a positive outlook and stave off depression. This downward spiral leads to irrational behavior and user’s prioritizing their next high over life necessities like eating regularly and holding a job. Other common myths include:
- The safety of prescription drugs – Many users erroneously believe that prescription drugs are “safe” if taken as prescribed, considerably less dangerous than illicit drugs. This assumption is contradicted by National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) findings that indicate prescription drugs can be as dangerous as, if not more than, illicit drugs. Just because someone is addicted to legitimately prescribed Adderall or Oxycontin instead of heroin or meth doesn’t mean that they are free from harm—and in some cases—the end result is worse.
- The sameness of all addicts – Contrary to popular belief, not all people struggling with addiction are criminals, social misfits, low-income welfare recipients, unemployed, financially insolvent, or “irresponsible by nature.” There are thousands, if not millions, of high functioning addicts worldwide. In such cases, friends and family may not know about the problem until it is too late, duped as they are by appearances of social and professional success and marital cohesiveness. Unfortunately, in the end, this facade almost always collapses, revealing the truth about the seriousness of the person’s condition.
- All users are addicts – Although habitual drug use often leads to addiction, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes an individual becomes physically dependent on a drug without experiencing corresponding psychological dependence. For example, someone recovering from surgery may be dependent on pain killers or morphine during recovery, but may still not experience the underlying compulsion to use characteristic of full-blown addiction.
- Addiction implies moral failure – The black cloud of misconception surrounding addiction includes the belief that people suffering from addiction lack integrity or morals. Neither is true! Many people struggling with addiction are sensitive and mean well despite their destructive habit. Although chronically abusing drugs is certainly an irresponsible decision, people almost never set out with that intention, nor do they consciously want the litany of negative consequences that accompany chronic use. Addiction is a known genetic proclivity in certain people, but even in cases where there is no known genetic link, certain events can exponentially increase one’s likelihood of suffering from the disease. Exposure to severe trauma, sexual, physical and emotional abuse, inherent or developed mental illness, and previous drug abuse or exposure in early development, are all heightened risk factors associated with addiction.
- One-size-fits-all treatment – A disease as complex and multidimensional as addiction requires personalized, client-specific treatment. In the not-so-distant past, many recovery programs and treatment protocols utilized standard methods to the detriment of diverse client bodies. Contemporary treatment has undergone a paradigm shift, with greater acceptance of holistic individualized programs that treat each case uniquely within a general, evidence-based protocol. Regardless of whatever outdated associations still exist in the field, no two clients have the same brain chemistry, personality or life experiences. Consequently, each should be treated as individuals in order to achieve optimal outcomes.
Have you experienced any of these myths regarding addiction? Share your experience with the rest of us!