Addiction is not an easy thing to understand, especially if you’ve never dealt with it within yourself. So if you’re not an addict and there’s someone in your life who is, it’s natural to feel that, well, you just don’t get it.
That chasm in understanding, though, can contribute to the growth of misperceptions, myths and half-truths. Add to that the still very significant stigma associated with addiction — not to mention the reticence of many addicts and their loved ones to talk about this disease — and it’s easy to see how wrong-headed ideas get perpetuated. That’s why I’d like to try to correct some of the commonly held but misinformed notions about addiction typically believed by non-addicts. With any luck, by talking openly about these erroneous ideas we can start to correct them. Here are nine misguided things I’ve heard or read plenty of times myself.
“Addicts need to hit their ‘bottom’ to get better.”
The problem with waiting for someone to hit rock bottom is that sometimes that involves irreparable damage to one’s health, even dying. I used to work at a homeless shelter. Many men and women there were in late-stage addiction and had reached their bottom long ago. Arriving at their own personal low had done nothing to enable them to get help and get sober. Add to that the fact that your bottom is unlikely to be the same as mine. For some, losing a treasured relationship or a job else could be the signal they need to turn their life around. For others, nothing will do the trick.
It’s also hard to find any real evidence that the level or severity of consequences a person experiences as a direct result of their using is related to their chances of succeeding in recovery. That said, it is probably better to get help early than to hold out for the perfect desperate moment. By then it might be too late, after all. More to the point, many people in recovery did stop their drug use well before losing jobs, partners, families and dreams.
“Once an addict, always an addict.”
There is some truth to this one, in the sense that if you’ve ever struggled with addiction you will always be at risk. But this statement is a cynical, hopeless view of recovery that helps no one. Many millions of people have battled addiction and come out the other side happy and healthy. Are they still addicts? Maybe in some strict definition of the term, but they’re not living as people in active addiction and what they are called should be up to them to decide.
“People who relapse are hopeless.”
No one is ever utterly without hope or a future, and that includes addicts, of course. This myth gets perpetuated largely because many people who haven’t struggled with addiction themselves don’t really understand the nature of relapse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that the relapse rate for drug addiction is 40% to 60%. This means that relapse is very often part of recovery, especially the early period when a newly sober person is figuring out how to stay sober, often after many years of using. So while this statistic may seem as if it reinforces this half-truth, what it really illustrates is just how resilient addicts can be. If an addict relapses, then he or she can try again. Some of us have relapsed numerous times before achieving lasting sobriety, but none of us are hopeless.
“You can’t trust an addict.”
Again, there’s a kernel of truth here. Addicts often lie and sometimes they steal and worse. But this myth is really about fear. What it’s really saying is that if you’re in a relationship with an addict you’re stupid; if you let an addict take advantage of you then you’re a fool. It is easier to fear someone than it is to help them.
“Addicts don’t have any ambition in life; they just want to get high.”
Like any other type of mental illness, addiction doesn’t discriminate. Addicts are writers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, CEOs, famous actors and every walk of life in between. In fact, some argue that those that are predisposed to addiction may also be driven to succeed. Like other broad statements about addiction, this one is mostly designed to foster shame. Addiction curtails ambition, it’s true, but piling on more shame just makes matters worse.
“Addicts contribute nothing to society.”
When someone is deep in active addiction this is probably at least somewhat true. Problems at work, with law enforcement and the justice system, with bad credit and bankruptcy, as well as health issues, all take a toll on society, directly and indirectly. But the fabric of society runs deeper than this. Like anyone else, people who struggling with addiction or who are in recovery help others every day, in ways both large and small. I would wager that there are at least a couple of people who help you in your life that you would never guess are sober but once were not. Many people in the mental health profession have addiction issues; a recent study found that 38% of addiction counselors are in recovery. To tar every addict with the same brush as taxing society and giving nothing back is simply unfair as well as inaccurate.
“Addicts need to be punished to get better.”
Thankfully, this misconception seems to be fading a bit. A 2014 poll showed that two-thirds of Americans now favor treatment over incarceration for drug offenders. Drug courts, or courts that offer individuals facing drug charges mandatory substance abuse treatment in lieu of jail time, have been shown to be effective. For those who struggle with substance abuse in particular, prison just makes the situation worse, since drugs are often readily available in jail. Addiction is not a moral failing, and without the chance to learn the tools of lasting recovery many inmates relapse soon after release from prison.
“Addicts are weak.”
Like the morality argument, this misperception harks back to the days — not so long ago — when willpower was touted as the best way to overcome addiction. If you had enough inner fortitude, the thinking went, you’d be able to stop drinking and drugging. Most of us did make bad choices along the way and there’s no point in denying that we gave in to short-term temptation over long-term goals, repeatedly. But for millions addiction didn’t stop there: We showed just how strong we were by fighting our demons and coming out the other side. In doing so we also showed more strength that most people could ever imagine.
“I don’t know any addicts.”
Yes, you do. They are your boss, your friend, the guy that owns the corner store, your mortgage guy or the woman who cuts your hair. Addicts are everywhere.