Top 10 Myths (and Realities) About Drug Addiction
More than many other topics, addiction is surrounded by myths and misinformation. Substance abuse is a hugely emotional issue and opinions on the issue vary widely. While this is to be expected, it is dangerous when opinions on such a life-impacting issue are based on information that is less than factual. Here we will discuss and dispel some of the most common myths associated with drug abuse and addiction.
Common Myths About Addiction
While it’s impossible to list every myth associated with substance abuse, we’ve listed 10 of the most common misconceptions about addiction and the facts that dispel these myths.
Myth #1: Addicts Can End Use Whenever They Wish
Many people believe that someone suffering from addiction is making the conscious choice to keep using. As someone looking in at an addicted person, it’s easy to wonder why that person won’t just stop. Thoughts like “If she loved me, she’d stop” and “He’s choosing the drugs over me” prevail the thinking of many people who love someone who’s addicted. It’s common to assume that an addicted individual wants to live the life of an addict.
This misguided view ignores the very definition of addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as an enduring condition that triggers the user to compulsively search out and use substances. Often, this use will continue regardless of the repercussions, no matter how unwanted they become. People in addiction often experience loss of friends, jobs, and housing as well as negative physical and mental health effects. The power of addiction perpetuates continued use even despite the repercussions.
Another factor that makes quitting more complex is dependence. When someone is dependent on a drug, his body begins to require it to feel and function normally. If he does attempt to end use, he will experience varied levels of physical and mental distress for a period. This is known as withdrawal and it can be extremely uncomfortable and even dangerous, depending on the drug type.
Those struggling with addiction often need support and assistance to begin the journey toward sobriety. Learn how to help an addict.
Myth #2: Addiction Is a Moral Failure
This myth is tricky because there is some level of truth to it. Yes. Using a substance is a choice, especially at the beginning. Unless someone was drugged without their knowledge, they willingly choose to use a substance initially. This does not mean that they chose addiction and all that comes with it, however.
Some people are able to use a substance multiple times without becoming addicted. Others may have used a substance only once when signs of addiction were established. Someone’s potential for addiction is affected by several factors, including:
- Environmental factors.
- Developmental factors, such as family upbringing and past trauma.
- Psychological and personality factors, such as distress tolerance, impulsivity, emotion regulation, and executive functioning.
Addiction is marked by observable and predictable changes in the brain. This is the basis for the theory that addiction is a disease. While substance use is a choice in the beginning, addiction is not. Brain changes caused by repeated substance use make it extremely difficult to quit using. Addicted individuals often make numerous failed attempts to stop and, in fact, recovery from addiction is often associated with more than one relapse.
Myth #3: All People that Use Drugs Are Addicted
In reality, there is much more to addiction than simply using a drug. Addiction is observed through a number of signs like:
A study funded by NIDA found that within 10 years of first using the drug:
- Increased conflict and changing relationships.
- Decreased attendance and performance at work or school.
- Changes in sleep and energy levels.
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
- Lack of money due to spending more on the substance.
- Legal problems associated with continued substance use.
- Numerous failed attempts to stop using.
- Tolerance (needing more or higher potency to achieve the desired effect).
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using.
If someone is not exhibiting any of these symptoms, it is possible that they are not addicted to the substance.
Addiction develops at different rates depending on the unique characteristics of the person, their reasons for using, and their drug of abuse.While it’s easy to call any drug user an addict, the reality is that drug use does not necessarily equate to addiction.
Myth #4: Addicts Are Easy to Identify
Myths and stereotypes usually work in combination to spread misinformation. The typical stereotype of an addict often includes the following characteristics:
- Low socioeconomic background.
- Involved with criminal activity.
Overall, many of these stereotypes are unfounded. Take the case of heroin use as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Rates of use among non-Hispanic whites nearly double that of all other groups combined.
- Rates of women using have been increasing at rates higher than men.
- People making between $20,000 and $49,999 are showing rates of use increasing faster than those making less than $20,000.
The truth is that people addicted to substances exist in every walk of life regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, employment, or economic status. Addiction is a condition that impacts everyone.
Myth #5: You Cannot Be Addicted to a Prescribed Medication
It’s common to assume that if your doctor prescribes you a medication, it is completely safe and nonaddictive. Unfortunately, this is not true. Many prescribed medications are highly potent and have the potential for abuse and addiction.
People can abuse and become addicted to a range of medications including:
- Sleep aids.
- Stimulants like ADHD medication.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), about 16 million people reported lifetime oxycodone abuse in 2012. The DEA goes on to state that nearly 26 million people admitted lifetime hydrocodone abuse in 2012.
Misusing these drugs (taking more than prescribed or taking it via alternate methods like injecting) leads to greater chances of addiction.
Myth #6: If You Can Go to Work, You Are Not Really Addicted
This myth is one likely perpetuated by the addicts rather than outside observers. Denial is a strong force for many addicts.
Going to work does not disqualify someone from being addicted to a substance. In fact, many addicts hold down jobs.
For many, work is one of the later aspects of functioning to suffer because of the value they put on their jobs for income and social standing. Those who are still able to maintain employment while addicted are often referred to as “high functioning addicts.” This high-functioning status typically degrades over time, however, as the addiction progresses.
Addiction does not look the same in every person, and addiction progresses faster in some than others. There is no hard and fast rule that determines whether someone is addicted.
Myth #7: Only “Hard” Drugs are Dangerous
Drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine have a reputation for being highly addictive, powerful, and dangerous. These “hard” drugs carry a well-deserved negative connotation because of their perceived risk, but these are not the only dangerous drugs.
Any substance that can lead to addiction and dependence can be dangerous. The effects of these substances can impair judgment, decrease coordination, and bring about unwanted physical and mental health issues. Even a substance that has a low risk of addiction can be very problematic depending on the individual and the reasons for use.
For example, alcohol is widely used recreationally and not considered a “hard” drug; however, its dangerous nature is easy to track. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
- About 88,000 people die each year in the U.S. from alcohol-related issues.
- More than 10,000 people die each year from driving accidents involving alcohol.
- Alcohol drinking can interfere with normal physical development for children and teens.
Alcohol is not the only example, though. According to NIDA, marijuana use is related to a number of mental health concerns including:
- Suicidal thoughts.
People that use drugs earlier in life are at greater risk of these negative effects of use, even though they may not present until later into adulthood.
Myth #8: There is Nothing Friends or Family Can Do to Help
This myth maintains that friends and family members are powerless against the addiction. This myth is not only incorrect, but it is dangerous since it implies that loved ones and their actions do not factor into someone’s ability to get recover from addiction. Certainly, no one can force an addicted person to quit using, but luckily, there are many methods you can use to improve the situation. Conversely, there are certain actions that can worsen the situation.
What to Do
The following can help you aid your loved one during the course of addiction:
- Being consistent with rules and expectations.
- Following through with promises and consequences.
- Speaking with optimism and positivity.
- Giving physical and verbal encouragement like a hug or a compliment for a job well done.
- Using assertive communication to find compromise.
- Creating (and sticking to) strong boundaries.
- Addressing underlying reasons for substance use.
- Gaining education on addiction and the substance of choice.
- Encouraging treatment for your loved one and yourself.
What Not to Do
Factors that can worsen addiction include:
- Being inconsistent with rules and expectations for the addicted person.
- Punishing the person during periods of sobriety.
- Speaking negatively or accusingly, which triggers shame and guilt.
- Placing all responsibility on the addict.
Myth #9: Rehab Doesn’t Really Work
For so many people, residential rehabilitation is a highly effective form of treatment. Rehabs help by removing an addicted individual from her current environment in the attempt to focus on treatment for a period that usually lasts between 28 and 90 days. During treatment, people can receive mental health, physical health, and addiction support to assist in the present and plan for the future.
Rehab is not a lifelong cure for addiction, though. As mentioned, addiction is a long-term condition, and it is marked by periods of relapse and recovery. It is possible for people to continue drug use following treatment just as it is possible for people with diabetes to struggle to maintain their blood sugar.
The best treatments for substance abuse and addiction are long-lasting, specialized programs that are readily available and target the whole person rather than the addiction. Rehab is an essential part of this long-term care for many people. Often, a successful plan incorporates rehab, outpatient treatment, and ongoing aftercare for continued support.
Myth #10: A Relapse Equals Failure
A relapse does not equate to failure. It is not a failure of the previous treatment attempts, the supports in place for the person, or the person. In fact, viewing this as a failure may breed unwanted emotional responses like:
These feelings hurt both the addicted person and those that love him and fuel continued substance use.
Relapse is a normal part of recovery and it can even be a helpful tool in indicating the need for a modification or reinvestment in treatment. It can be a sign that additional types of treatment should be explored and employed. Making necessary changes to the treatment plan increases the chances of maintaining future recovery efforts.
Dangers of Believing the Myths
Myths will always exist, especially among emotional and confusing topics like addiction. The risk comes from treating a myth as a reality without questioning it and letting it influence your beliefs and actions.
Lack of appropriate information on the subject of substance use can lead to a list of negative outcomes including:
- Increased use.
- Damaged relationships.
- Increased mental health complaints.
- Increased physical health complaints.
- Risk of overdose, hazardous withdrawals, or death.
Seeking the best information from the most reputable sources will keep you and the people you care about safe.
Help for Addiction
If you are not sure whom to contact, consider calling 1-888-744-0069Who Answers?. Here you can learn more information to aid in your quest to separate myth from reality. You can also find treatment if addiction has taken hold of your life or that of someone you love.
- Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved March 06, 2016, from http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
- Hydrocodone. (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 2016, from http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/hydrocodone.pdf#search=hydrocodone
- Is there a link between marijuana use and mental illness? (n.d.). Retrieved March 06, 2016, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/there-link-between-marijuana-use-mental-illness
- Oxycodone. (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 2016, from http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/oxycodone/oxycodone.pdf#search=oxycodone
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