Despite increased media attention in recent years, there are still myths and misconceptions about addiction that won’t go away. These myths can have real effects on people’s lives, since they affect public opinion and public policy, not to mention they can make individuals reluctant to seek help. The following are some of the more common misconceptions about addiction.
“Addiction is a choice.”
Since substance use is typically a choice, many people assume addiction is a choice, as well. However, no one chooses to become addicted. What’s more, many people with substance use disorders want to stop but can’t. In fact, trying to quit but being unable to is one of the defining features of addiction. It’s important to remember that more than 86 percent of Americans have drunk alcohol at some point in their lives, but less than six percent develop an alcohol use disorder. Even people who use highly addictive drugs like heroin don’t become addicted as often as you probably think. That means there are factors at work beyond choosing to use drugs or alcohol. It’s not possible to predict who will develop a substance use disorder and who won’t; and anyone who has seen addiction close-up would never believe someone would choose it.
“Addiction is caused by a lack of willpower.”
A lot of people think addiction is down to willpower — that if you resolve to quit drugs or alcohol, you can do it. A 2018 poll¹ by AP-NORC found that while a slim majority of Americans now see addiction as a disease that requires treatment, a large minority (about 44 percent) believe that opioid addiction indicates a lack of willpower or discipline.
While willpower and discipline can play a supporting role in recovery, they are not in themselves enough to keep you sober. The major risk factors for addiction include trauma, childhood environment, genetic factors, and mental health issues. Recovering from addiction requires addressing these issues, as well as creating a support system and making healthy lifestyle changes. Anyone who tries to stay sober using willpower alone is likely to have a hard time and a short recovery.
“Only a certain type of person gets addicted.”
A lot of people believe, perhaps on a subconscious level, that there’s a certain kind of person who develops a substance use disorder. They may think it depends on race, socioeconomic status, or personality type. In reality, addiction cuts across all of these. Ever since the beginning of the opioid crisis, this fact has become even more evident, due to the fact that millions of people who might never have otherwise been exposed to opioids were prescribed addictive painkillers by their doctors in large enough quantities to cause physical dependence. Addiction doesn’t discriminate.
“Once an addict, always an addict.”
This particular myth is doubly harmful. For one thing, it’s terribly stigmatizing. If someone has issues with drugs or alcohol, they get branded for life with the “addict” label, which isn’t fair.
More to the point, it just isn’t true. Research shows that the general public tends to vastly underestimate how many people successfully recover from substance use disorders. As noted above, addiction is often driven by other factors, including untreated mental health issues. Once you get these under control and learn some recovery skills, there’s a good chance you will be able to manage your addictive behavior.
Moreover, addiction often appears during early adulthood, between the ages of 18 and 25, when the brain — particularly the areas involved in judgment and self-control — isn’t fully formed yet. Substance use issues often get easier to manage after age 25. As we age, we also typically get less neurotic and more conscientious; a personality pattern that makes you less prone to harmful substance use. In other words, most people with substance use issues will recover with time and treatment.
“People with substance use disorders are typically unemployed and often homeless.”
A common stereotype of someone with a substance use disorder is that they are unemployed or even homeless. The corollary is that if you have a job, a family, and a place to live, that proves you don’t have a serious substance use issue. While it’s true that substance use issues are more common among unemployed and homeless people, it doesn’t follow that most people with substance use issues are unemployed or homeless. Addiction is a largely invisible problem and many outwardly successful people struggle with substance use in private. In fact, most people with substance use issues are able to keep their lives together for at least a while. Professionals in particular will go to great lengths to keep their substance use from affecting their work. In the long run, though, most people can’t keep this up. Either they get help, or their substance use will affect their jobs and families.
“You have to hit rock bottom before you can recover from addiction.”
This is a particularly destructive myth because it probably keeps people from getting help in time more than any other myth. In reality, most people who get help for addiction aren't quite sure they’re ready to get sober. Sometimes they don’t even believe they have a problem and they just want to placate their families. However, this doesn’t mean they can’t recover. For example, each year, more than 120,000 Americans opt for treatment in drug courts and they have significantly better outcomes than people who go to jail. Additionally, interventions are often successful in getting people to accept treatment. Once in treatment, most people become more motivated to stay sober and they often do well. If you wait to hit rock bottom, it may be too late.
Myths about addiction persist mostly because we tend to believe whatever fits in our worldview, not necessarily what the evidence tells us. There are mountains of evidence telling us that addiction is not a choice, that it is caused by factors such as mental health issues, genetic factors, and trauma, and that treatment — not punishment — helps people recover. At The Foundry, we know that treating addiction is a complex and individualized process and we use many evidence-based modalities to help our clients create a strong recovery. For more information, call us today at 1-844-955-1066 or explore our website.