Myths about addiction that undermine recovery


From: Mark Jacobson
Peer support specialist

“Honest,” “courageous” and “insightful” aren’t words typically used to describe drug addicts. But if given a chance, many addicts end up developing these qualities and contributing to society in a way they never imagined possible. These successes occur in spite of major obstacles: from the ever-present threat of relapse to the pervasive stereotypes addicts encounter along the way. Even with decades of research, some of the most damaging beliefs about addiction remain.

#1: Addicts are bad people who deserved to be punished.

Man or woman, rich or poor, young or old, if a person develops an addiction there’s a widespread assumption that they are bad, weak-willed, or immoral.

It is true that many addicts do reprehensible things. Driven by changes in the brain brought on by prolonged drug use, they lie, cheat and steal to maintain their habit. But good people do bad things and sick people need treatment — not punishment — to get better.

#2: Addiction is a choice.

Recovery isn’t as simple as exercising enough willpower. People do not choose to become addicts any more than they choose to have cancer. Genetics make up about half the risk of addiction; environmental factors such as family life, upbringing, and peer influences make up the other half.

Brain imaging shows that differences in the brain are both a cause and effect of addiction. Long before drugs enter the picture, there are neurobiological differences in people who become addicted compared to those who do not become addicted. Prolonged drug use changes the structure and function of the brain., making it difficult to control impulses, feel pleasure from natural rewards like sex or food, and focus on anything other than getting and using drugs.

#3: People usually get addicted to one type of substance.

At one time, we believed that most addicts had one drug of choice and stuck with it. Today, polysubstance abuse — the use of three or more classes of substances — is the norm, not the exception.

People who use multiple substances are more likely to struggle with mental illness, which, when complicated by drug interactions and side effects, makes polysubstance abuse riskier and more difficult to treat than other types of drug abuse.

#4: People who get addicted to prescription drugs are different from people who get addicted to illegal drugs.

Despite the fact that prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the past decade, the use of “legal” drugs to get high carries less stigma than the use of illicit drugs. Because medications like Vicodin, Xanax and Adderall can be prescribed by a doctor, are relatively safe when used as prescribed, and already sitting in most people’s medicine cabinets, there is a widespread misconception that they are safer than street drugs — they are not.

When a person takes a prescription medication in a larger dose, more often than intended, or for a condition they do not have, it affects the same areas of the brain as illicit drugs and poses the same risk of addiction.

#5: Treatment should put addicts in their place.

Even though the leading authorities on addiction agree that addiction is a chronic disease similar to heart disease, diabetes and cancer, addicts are still treated as second-class citizens. Many treatments centers believe confrontational, shame-based methods are necessary to motivate addicts. Quite the contrary. In addition to contributing to the stigma of addiction and deterring people from seeking treatment, research shows that shame is a strong predicator of relapse.

The myths about addiction are damaging not only to addicts and their families, but to all of us. What if many influential business leaders, inspirational artists, best-selling authors, and history-making politicians who join the ranks of recovering addicts were shamed into silence? By understanding addiction as a brain disease and allowing people to recover in the way that works best for them, we can make significant strides in addressing the nation’s leading public health problem.


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