Do drugs really “fry” your brain? Once an addict, always an addict? Is 12-step the only way? Do you really have to hit “rock bottom” before seeking help? You might be surprised at how often these type of questions are asked—and their answers misunderstood.
There is a lot of stigma surrounding addiction that leads to confused ideas about what addiction really is, what the real dangers are, and what solutions are available. So today, let’s take a closer look at some of the most damaging myths surrounding addiction and recovery.
Myth No. 1: Addiction is for life
This simply isn’t true, and it places a huge emotional and psychological burden on recovered addicts. Addiction is a spectrum disorder, like depression, and every person is different. Addiction isn’t a choice and addicts are not bad people. The hostility toward addicts takes a form unprecedented among other chronic illnesses, prompting harsh legal sanctions and judgments from others. But sick people need treatment – not punishment – to get better. And given the proper treatment, many addicts recover.
Myth No. 2: Willpower is enough
Addiction is a chronic brain disease, not a matter of willpower. This means that, contrary to old stereotypes, people who become addicted to drugs or alcohol are not weak, immoral or tragically flawed.
Myth No. 3: Drugs ‘fry’ your brain
Remember that 1987 anti-drug commercial that used a frying egg to show “your brain on drugs?” While drug abuse can be bad for the brain, it is a gross oversimplification to say that drug use generally causes permanent and severe brain damage.
This myth gives the impression that recovered addicts are “damaged goods” and sets the stage for discrimination by employers, health care providers and the legal system. That said, certain drugs are neurotoxic: methamphetamine, MDMA, cocaine and inhalants are a few examples. However, even with these types of drugs, the side effects, while undesirable, by no means produce a “damaged” person.
Myth No. 5: Tough love is not always the best approach
One of the most widely repeated pieces of advice on dealing with addiction in a loved one is that “tough love” is the best approach. But in reality love may often be more effective than tough love. Addicts often feel alienated from their family and loved ones already, so being ‘tough’ can be counterproductive, leading to more secrets and substance misuse.
Myth No. 6: If someone relapses, they will never get better
The bad news is that relapse is an all too common problem with recovery, but the good news is that people do recover from addictions, sometimes after many relapses. A relapse does not mean that the person will never get better, but it can be a sign that their treatment needs to be altered. There are many forms of treatment and recovery is a reality for many people every day.
Myth No. 7: You have to hit ‘rock bottom’
Here’s why this is dangerous: If we wait until a person “bottoms out,” it could be too late to help them.
Every person has a different “bottom.” For some, it could be getting arrested or becoming homeless. For many, it’s much less dramatic — losing an important personal relationship, being confronted by family or doing poorly at work or school.
There is little evidence that the level of consequences a person accumulates before seeking help is related to their chances of succeeding in recovery. It’s better to get help early than to hold out for the perfect desperate moment.
Myth No. 8: Kicking a drug habit with the help of other drugs
Many addicts will benefit from specialized medications designed to treat substance abuse and addiction. Ironically, the biggest controversy comes from the people these medications are designed to treat. Too many old-schoolers still believe that the use of any medications, especially mood-altering medications, puts sobriety in question.
Myth No. 9: If someone has a stable job and life, they don’t have an addiction problem
The myth that addicts are unable to function is also false. Countless people function daily seemingly well despite having serious addiction problems. The myth that someone who has a stable life does not have an addiction problem fuels much of the denial that typically exists around the problem of addiction.
Myth No. 10: The only way for addicts to stop using is by going to AA meetings
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the Twelve Steps have helped countless addicts get and stay sober. It’s a profound program that works for many people. But it doesn’t work for a majority of addicts.
People must know that there are other treatments that are effective. Some are used in concert with AA, but AA isn’t a requirement to managing addiction. When treatment programs insist that patients must practice the Steps, they can alienate some addicts, often teenagers.
Effective programs should offer many types of treatment, including behavioral and psychological treatments. And some addictions should be treated with medication in addition to behavioral treatments.
There is a lot of stigma surrounding addiction that holds us back from a real understanding of what addiction is, what the real dangers are and how we should manage this national problem. Don’t be afraid to speak out and seek help if you think you or someone you know might need it. Remember: seeking help is a sign of strength.