Three Destructive Myths About Addiction That Hinder Recovery
In 1810, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a founding father, proposed the implementation of sober houses to care for alcoholics. He and others tried to dispel some of the myths about addiction, and treat the condition as a disease, and not a moral failing. “Asylums” for the inebriated eventually opened a few decades later, but ultimately these were closed and alcoholics were turned out to the streets.
Between 1919 to 1924, morphine maintenance clinics ran by public health departments and police stations helped the opiate-addicted. However, federal action closed these down as well, and at this point, treatment for narcotic addiction all but disappeared until the 1960s.
The ways in which addiction has been culturally viewed in the U.S. has varied greatly over the past two centuries. For every doctor who claimed addiction was a disease that could be treated, there were many others who considered addiction a moral failing, and that addicts and alcoholics were the worse types of people – pathetic dregs of society with nothing to offer and not deserving of life.
Unfortunately, there are still many myths about addiction that persist to this day that are very damaging to the sufferers, their family, and society as a whole. While there are dozens of harmful misconceptions that persist, I offer here three of the most destructive myths about addiction that continue to hinder the recovery of sufferers and perpetuate incorrect assumptions and stigma.
#1 – Addiction is a choice and therefore, a moral failing.
If recovering from addiction was a simple matter of willpower, why would more people do it? People do not “choose” to become addicted, any more than they chose to develop Type II diabetes.
In fact, many experts believe that genetics and environment factors are the primary building blocks of addiction, two aspects of our lives that we have little or no control over.
Moreover, brain imagining research has revealed that differences or changes in the brain are both a cause and effect of addiction. Those who have the potential to become dependent on substances have neurobiological differences that are innate. Once addicted, extended drug use manifests more changes in the function and structure of the brain.
These changes inhibit the ability to control impulsive action and to feel pleasure from natural rewards, and not just the effects of drugs. Modern science has shown that addiction is a disease and not a choice, a moral failing, or a simple matter of willpower.
To expand on these ideas, another myth that is closely related involves the perception that addicts can use whenever they wish, and can, therefore, stop if they want. Thoughts that loved ones may entertain consist of “If he loved me, he’d quit” or “She’s choosing alcohol over me.”
Although understandable, this perception is misguided and ignores the true nature of addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) characterizes addiction as an enduring condition that causes the user to compulsively search out and use addictive substances.
Furthermore, this behavior will continue despite negative consequences, such as estrangement from family and friends, unemployment, housing, and adverse mental and physical health effects. Once a user is dependent, he or she will encounter highly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, and without professional support and family intervention, the possibility of relapse is exceptionally high.
#2 – A Relapse Equals Failure
One of the worse perceptions of recovery is that relapse is a concrete sign of failure and that this signals a total return to use, all progress lost, and back to square one.
Relapse is, by definition, the #1 behavior that recovering substance abusers want to avoid. However, a relapse does not negate progress or the amount of time one has remained clean or sober. Some may react to a relapse by their loved one like this:
“You’ve been sober for one month. You came so far! How could you do this and ruin all the progress you’ve made?
However, it should be framed more like this:
“You did an amazing thing. You beat substance abuse for an entire month. When was the last time you were able to do that? Well, now you know that you can!”
See the difference? By perceiving relapse as a devastating failure, both the addict and his or her supporters foster negative emotions such as guilt, shame, hopelessness, and apathy. Painful feelings wrought from this attitude are more likely to make the person want to continue using rather than shame them into quitting again.
The truth is that relapse is a very normal (although not inevitable) aspect of recovery and can be utilized for the greater good in treatment. Moreover, it may imply that modifications are needed, and perhaps more emphasis placed on coping skills and how to handle triggers or mental distress in the future.
In fact, NIDA compares addiction and hypertension regarding treatment, stating that both conditions follow a similar pattern of treatment, relapse, and readjustments to treatment:
“Successful treatment for addiction typically requires continual evaluation and lapses to drug abuse do not indicate failure—rather, they signify that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted, or that alternate treatment is needed.”
#3 – The Drug-For-A-Drug Argument In Treatment
Medication-assisted therapies, though proven effective, still get a bad wrap. Some consider the practice as trading one addiction or drug for another.
But in modern treatment centers, using pharmacotherapy to fight addiction is common. These medications have been studied and approved by the Food & Drug Administration to help treat certain addictions by reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings, the two main culprits in relapse.
These medications, such as naltrexone and suboxone, are used in conjunction with a much broader addiction treatment program and are vastly different from street drugs. They are safer, less prone to abuse and addiction, do not result in a high, and are regulated.
Medication-assisted therapy, at its heart, is a version of harm reduction, an approach that seeks to make things better when the problem can’t be resolved with just a wave a hand.
The Consequences of Believing and Perpetuating Myths About Addiction
Myths cannot be treated as reality, and even when good ideas come out of these myths, they are often misguided. Treating a substance abuser in a manner that is based on myths about addiction will never render anything positive or progressive in their recovery.
In fact, among loved ones, a lack of information on substance abuse often leads to the following adverse outcomes for the sufferer:
- Increased substance use.
- Damaged and estranged relationships.
- Increased mental health problems.
- Increased physical health problems.
- Heightened risk of overdose and death.
If you or your loved one is suffering from a substance use disorder, please educate yourself on the subject by reading the words of scientists, researchers, and crucially, mental health professionals who help others suffering from addiction and treat it every day.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology