Common Misconceptions about Drug Abuse & Addiction
Despite increased public sympathy for the problems facing addicts and their loved ones, misconceptions about drug abuse still abound. Here’s the truth about seven popular beliefs.
Misconception #1: Alcohol is safer than illegal drugs.
Even with the publicity surrounding drunk-driving accidents and alcohol-fueled domestic violence, many people remain firmly convinced that nothing with real danger potential would be allowed on the open market. It’s true that only a minority of alcohol consumers regularly drink to the high-risk level, but that minority is significant. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that over 15.7 million Americans, including 623,000 middle- and high-school-age youngsters, have serious drinking problems—and that in a typical year, 88,000 deaths and $249,000,000,000 in economic loss can be attributed to alcohol misuse.
Misconception #2: If it’s prescribed by a doctor, it can’t be addictive.
Another “they don’t allow bad products on the market” assumption, with high credibility because it’s linked to experts who have every reason to keep the customer’s best interests at heart—although recent news coverage of the opioid epidemic has set this belief back somewhat. Usually, a prescription’s turning into addiction isn’t the fault of the doctor, but of patients who don’t follow directions and of a market that makes it too easy to get additional medication through alternate channels. Regardless, over 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, which cause more fatalities than any illegal drug.
Misconception #3: Drug abusers are selfish and weak-willed.
The human tendency to fix blame and hold grudges probably accounts for the popularity of this belief. While some people do manage to kick dependence by sheer willpower, the compulsive cravings and physical agonies of addiction are real, and more than a match for most good intentions. People with addiction need encouragement and support (albeit with a healthy dose of tough love), not accusations and nagging that push them further into the self-pity that fuels addiction.
Misconception #4: Addicts are dead broke, shabby-looking and usually homeless.
Actually, as many as half of addicts are “high-functioning,” meaning they keep their addictions in the background for years while continuing to perform acceptably in (often high-level) jobs and other responsibilities. Often, only their closest intimates even suspect these people have any problem with addictive substances. High-functioning addicts tend to be perfectionistic, proud and defensive, which means they often let the problem grow until the worst consequences suddenly explode into the open. If you have a loved one who shows signs of high-functioning addiction—or if you recognize symptoms in yourself—don’t ignore it: get expert advice.
Misconception #5: People get into drug use purely for the thrill of getting high.
Many people, especially teenagers and twentysomethings, do experiment with drugs just to see what it feels like or just to defy “the system.” However, these aren’t usually the people who become addicted. The majority of reasons for using drugs to the point of addiction are related to pain, insecurity or stress—addiction is a way of compensating for perceived powerlessness to cope in healthier but more demanding ways.
Misconception #6: Older people don’t get addicted.
A stereotype dating back to at least the 1960s says that all drug users are teenagers. The majority take their first hits at that age, but many carry the problem well into adulthood: the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that many Baby Boomers have failed to “grow out” of illicit use. And first-time addiction—especially to prescription drugs and alcohol—does occur in people of Social Security age, though the symptoms may go unnoticed because they resemble behavioral changes and loss of function often associated with “normal” aging.
Misconception #7: Those truly committed to recovery don’t relapse.
This can be a particularly dangerous belief if it puts those in recovery (and their supporters) into a “this is the only chance” mindset. Around half of recovering addicts relapse at least once, and the reasons vary from old problems undealt with, to unexpected new stresses, to being caught off guard at the wrong moment. What’s more important is that, with a strong support system and an understanding of how to handle relapse, it’s possible to recover quickly and “get up one more time than you