"Drug addicts are just weak-willed babies." "Alcoholics can stop drinking at any time if they really wanted to." "No one in my family is an alcoholic or drug addict. After all, everyone knows addicts come from low-class, loser families. "
Sadly, these erroneous stereotypes of the typical drug addict or alcoholic are all too prevalent in our society. In reality, addiction doesn't discriminate. Anyone can become addicted. And increasingly, they are.
Addiction is the No. 1 health problem in America, and a huge issue throughout the world. In 2013, 21.6 million Americans 12 and older were classified as having a substance abuse problem – about 8 percent of the population [source: National Survey on Drug Use and Health]. Of this number, 2.6 million were dependent on both drugs and alcohol; 4.3 million were dependent on drugs only. The vast majority – 14.7 million – was dependent on alcohol only [source: NSDUH].
Even more pronounced, 20 percent of Americans 12 and older had used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons during the past 30 days [source: National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence]. Pain relievers were the second-most abused drug in 2013, after marijuana, but ahead of cocaine [source: NCADD].
If we're to effectively battle addiction, we first need to separate truth from fiction. Here are 10 of the more common myths surrounding the topic.
Addicts Must Hit Rock Bottom Before Recovery
This may be the most dangerous misconception about addiction. An addict can recover from her addiction at any time. Yes, she has to be willing to change. But she might be willing to do so at the very start of her addiction. Too many people — addicts, their families, their friends — mistakenly wait for some major, tragic event to occur before trying to get or offer help. Unfortunately, sometimes that tragic event is an overdose or blackout or accident that results in death.
Even if the addict feels she won't have the will to fight for sobriety until she hits rock bottom, what does that really mean? Just as we all have different tolerances to pain, everyone will have a different point he or she considers "rock bottom." For one, it might be a girlfriend breaking up because of his addiction. For another, rock bottom might come only after her addiction causes joblessness, homelessness or jail time. It's always best to get help for an addiction as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more you risk serious consequences, including death.
A corollary to this myth is the belief that treatment won't work, unless the addict really wants it. But studies have shown that people who undergo court-mandated treatment do about as well as those who enter treatment voluntarily [source: Anglin et al.]
Good People Don't Become Addicts
People addicted to drugs, alcohol or other substances certainly aren't kind, charitable, salt-of-the-earth folks. They lie, steal and cheat; they're angry and abusive. They're just plain bad. Except that they aren't.
Research — several decades' worth — consistently shows addiction is a complicated brain disease that can strike anyone, at any time, without regard for race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status or anything else. Just as some people are more susceptible to heart disease or cancer, some are more susceptible to addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about half of all addicts have a genetic susceptibility to addiction. Other risk factors include the age you started using alcohol or drugs (the earlier you started, the more likely an addiction will develop) and your home environment (abuse, neglect and trauma are contributing factors) [source: NCADD].
Yes, a person still makes the choice to try alcohol or drugs. But often that person is a pretty typical risk-taking adolescent. It's also true an addict may lie, steal and cheat in order to score that next hit, or buy that quart of booze, all unsavory actions. But that doesn't mean the addict is a terrible person. Addicts are sick people, not bad seeds, who need help.
Addicts Are Weak
It's so easy to look at someone suffering from an addiction and think, "Why doesn't he just stop?" After all, it's not hard for the rest of us to stop doing things that aren't good for us. Sure, it might be a pain to always remember to buckle up in the car, or to hold your mouth shut to stop yourself from swearing in front of the kids, but if you really try hard, you can do it. All you need is to summon a little willpower. So why can't an addict just stop drinking or shooting up? Especially when the consequences of using or drinking can be so dire, like losing your job, home and family?
The answer is simple: Addiction isn't an issue of character. It's a disease. More ominously, a brain disease. Drugs cause a huge upsurge in dopamine, a neurochemical that stimulates feelings of pleasure. So the user feels really good and for a long time initially. The problem is that repeated drug use lowers the response of the dopamine system to everyday stimuli – to the point where the brain doesn't just want drugs or booze, it needs those substances [source: National Institute on Drug Abuse]. Addicts can't will away their desires or actions. They need treatment or they'll never recover.
If You Have a Stable Career and Family Life, You're Not an Addict
Sometimes people discover a friend, family member or neighbor is an alcoholic. Or regularly snorts cocaine. And they're astonished. After all, he's the CEO of a prosperous company with loads of responsibility. How could he possibly function if he's an addict? And she's always on top of her four kids' active schedules, never missing a soccer practice, swim meet or flute lesson. Surely she can't really be an alcoholic. Maybe she just has a few glasses of wine at night to unwind.
Stable careers and family lives have nothing to do with addiction. Many a well-regarded and successful physician, for example, is addicted to prescription drugs without anyone knowing. A University of Florida study showed that while doctors abuse alcohol and drugs at the same rate as the rest of us, they abuse prescription drugs at a much higher rate [source: Physician Health Program]. And generally an addict's work only begins to suffer in the later stages of the disease, when he shifts from being a functioning addict to a nonfunctioning one [source: Melemis]. And that stable home life? Family members often cover for impaired loved ones, creating sunny public façades while privately undergoing much stress. Addiction can certainly cause people to lose their jobs or result in divorce, but that's certainly not always the case.
Having a High Alcohol Tolerance Means You're OK
Some people can down a few six-packs of beer or a bottle of wine like it was nothing. They'll insist they're not alcoholics. "After all, I'm not stumbling around or slurring my words or blacking out," they'll say. "I merely have a high tolerance. A good metabolism. Solid genetics." In reality, their words show just the opposite. They do have a problem, and it's a big one. Most people who drank that much alcohol would be sick — if they could even get it all down. So if you can drink large quantities of booze and feel just fine afterward, that's actually a bad sign [source: Carise].
Anyone who drinks regularly eventually develops a higher tolerance for booze and its effects. So if you have to drink a lot these days to get a buzz, or if you have to drink more and more over time to feel its effects, you likely have a problem.
You Need a 12-step Program to Beat Addiction
Many an addict, whether battling an addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling — you name it — has successfully recovered with a 12-step program. These programs, the most popular of which is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), typically require addicts to live according to 12 guiding principles that emphasize personal growth and the dependence upon a higher spiritual being, typically God. While 12-step programs have done much good for many people, they don't help everyone. According to a 2007 internal survey done by AA, 33 percent of members claimed sobriety for more than 10 years, 12 percent for five to 10 years, 24 percent for one to five years and 31 percent for less than a year. Not too shabby. But these figures don't count the people who quit AA within the first year. A 2000 report published in "Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly" found 81 percent of AA newbies quit within the first month, with 90 percent throwing in the towel by the three-month mark [source: Flanagin].
One of the problems some people have with 12-step programs is their reliance on God and religion. If you don't believe in either, can you really be helped? Permanently? It's best to have a variety of behavioral and psychological treatments available so each addict can find the one that works best for him. If you can glean the strength to fight addiction from your religion, that's great. Nonbelievers may be able to draw similar fortitude from a belief in family, community and mankind [sources: Carise, Sheff]. And, medication may also be needed in addition to your 12-step program -- which brings us to our next myth.
Abusers Can't Be Treated with Medication
If someone has been struggling with an addiction to drugs, it can seem ludicrous to treat their addiction with pharmaceuticals. Why would you give drugs to a drug addict? You don't give a recovering alcoholic a six-pack in the hopes it will keep him away from the hard stuff. Yet medication can be a very effective way to combat certain drug addictions.
First, keep in mind there are many pharmaceuticals that can be used. Some have nothing to do with the addiction itself, but assist with its underlying causes, such as anxiety, depression or trauma. Others do directly combat the addiction, inhibiting cravings for example. Methadone, a popular drug used to treat heroin addiction, eliminates physical withdrawal symptoms when taken daily. Then, once patients are at an effective dosage, they no longer crave heroin. If they decide to use it again anyway, the methadone blocks the euphoric high that the drug typically brings [sources: Riverwood Group, LLC, Sheff].
Another drug, Antabuse, blocks the processing of alcohol in your body, so you vomit, get nauseous or experience chest pains if you drink after taking it. It's used for treating alcoholics in conjunction with counseling [source: Drugs.com]. Finally, addicts taken to the hospital are often detoxified through the use of medications.
You Can't Get Hooked on Prescription Medicine
If your doctor prescribes a particular medicine, the thinking goes, how can it possibly be harmful? If it was, the physician wouldn't prescribe it. Many very helpful medications commonly prescribed by doctors are safe to take — if you take them as prescribed, which means in the exact dosage and for the exact (normally short) time frame specified by your physician. If taken in higher dosages or for a longer time, however, these same medications can quickly turn addictive and even lethal because they affect the same parts of the brain as street drugs [sources: Carise, Sack].
Controlled prescription drug abuse is actually America's fastest-growing drug problem according to a 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Agency. Some of the drugs most commonly abused include Xanax, Valium, Ambien, Tylenol with codeine, OxyContin and Percocet [source: National Institute on Drug Abuse]. Unfortunately, too many people still believe these prescription meds are not dangerous or addictive as street drugs. But that is just plain false.
Addicts Who Relapse Will Never Be Clean
Perhaps because many of us have seen or heard of addicts repeatedly relapsing, there's a misconception that once you relapse, you'll never be able to beat your addiction. It's true addiction is a chronic disorder. And as such, someone who becomes addicted must work hard to stay clean and sober every day for the rest of his life. But one relapse (or even two or three or more) doesn't mean you're doomed. Sometimes when an addict delves into the reasons behind a relapse, it makes him stronger and better able to prevent future slips [source: White].
It's critical that addicts know relapses don't mean it's impossible to become clean. If this is what they believe, some may stop trying. Or this false belief will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's also important for addicts to know that while relapses are OK, they're not always part of the process. If they believe a relapse is typical or normal, they might only work half-heartedly at their recovery, basically waiting for an opportunity to relapse and get it over with [sources: Alcohol Rehab, Carise].
Drug Addiction Is Worse Than Alcohol Addiction
One of the more pervasive myths about addiction is that drug addiction is worse than alcohol addiction. Perhaps this erroneous thinking stems from the fact that street drugs are illegal while alcohol is not. Or maybe it's due to the fact that more of us have seen someone drunk than stoned or high.
Yet according to a 2010 study in The Lancet, alcohol is the most harmful drug of all — more harmful than heroin, crack cocaine, methylamphetamine, cocaine, tobacco and a slew of others. In the study, drugs and alcohol were rated on a scale of 1 to 100 according to their harmfulness to the individual user and to others. Alcohol had the top danger rating (72), while heroin and crack cocaine were distant runners-up with scores of 55 and 54, respectively. While heroin and crack cocaine were ranked as more harmful to users than alcohol, alcohol came out on top because it is the mostly widely used drug and therefore the most dangerous to society [sources: BBC News, Nutt].
Addiction is a tragedy any way you look at it. But the better educated we all are about this issue, the better we'll be able to fight it.
HowStuffWorks looks at the language and treatment around today's opioid addiction versus the crack cocaine addiction of the '80s and '90s.
Author's Note: 10 Myths About Addiction
Like many of us, I know people struggling with addiction. If only becoming healthy was as easy as recovering from the flu.
- Anglin, M. Douglas, Michael Prendergast and David Farrabee. "The Effectiveness of Coerced Treatment for Drug-Abusing Offenders." UCLA Drug Abuse Research Center. March 23-25, 1998. (Jan. 20, 2015). https://www.ncjrs.gov/ondcppubs/treat/consensus/anglin.pdf
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