A shockingly low number of Americans who need addiction treatment actually receive it – only 2.5 million people out of 22.7 million. There are a variety of financial and emotional reasons why an individual might not seek treatment, but mistaken beliefs about addiction can also affect whether addicted people will pursue recovery. Here are five of the most common misconceptions about addiction.
1. If you have a career and family, you can’t be addicted.
The idea that all addicted individuals are homeless or struggling to stay off the streets is false. Many people who have substance abuse problems hold down jobs and have families with children. They mask their addiction well from family and friends and are often referred to as the “high-functioning” type.
- A study by the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcoholism (NIAAA) categorized approximately 19.5 percent of all alcoholics as “functional.”
- Based on a survey conducted by the National Safety Council, 75% of employers report that opioid use has impacted their workplace
- According to SAMHSA, 68.9 percent of the estimated 22.4 million illicit drug users of ages 18 or older are employed full-time or part-time.
- Additionally, one report found that 1 in 8 children in the US lived with at least one parent who had a past year substance use disorder.
These individuals may appear to live “normal” lives with happy families and even excel in high-powered positions. However, if their family members or friends take a closer look, they will likely notice signs of a substance abuse problem. Some of them are:
- Sudden behavioral changes or mood swings
- Frequent hangovers
- Defensiveness when asked about their drinking or misuse of substances
- Excuses for their heavy drinking or misuse of substances by attributing them to being a necessary factor in keeping up with their job’s demands
- Less time spent with family and more time spent with other individuals who misuse substances or drink excessively
2. I can quit my addiction whenever I want.
Willpower alone will not help a person overcome addiction. As much as you want to believe someone when they say, “I’ll quit tomorrow” or “Just one more drink,” it likely won’t be their last getting high or drunk. Oftentimes, there is physical and psychological damage behind an addiction that needs professional attention. A person battling a substance abuse problem needs individualized medical and/or clinical treatments, integrative therapies, and mindfulness practices to restore balance to their life. They also need to develop coping skills and to re-establish strong connections with family, employers, and friends — a crucial part of success in recovery. Through proper treatment, a person struggling with addiction will be able to deal with the major and minor issues that likely caused them to resort to alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms in the past.
3. I haven’t hit “rock bottom” yet, so I don’t need treatment.
This misconception about addiction is actually a very dangerous one. Hitting rock bottom could mean a person has finally reached the point where it is too late to get help. Everyone’s “rock bottom” is different. For some people, it could be when they have lost their home and job or have suffered a nearly fatal overdose. It could also be when their family severs all ties with them. Other people might not need to experience such drastic circumstances. Their wake-up call might come to them when they experience a breakup with their significant other or are no longer excelling at school or work.
When it comes to seeking help for a substance use disorder, you don’t need to experience the extreme consequences of addiction to require treatment. It’s best to reach out for help before you ever get close to reaching your “rock bottom.”
4. Addiction is a choice that people make.
While the initial decision to misuse a substance may be voluntary, the way a person’s brain reacts to that substance isn’t. Those that believe addiction is a choice, may also describe the disease as a moral failing or having poor character. It’s important to move away from this mindset as substance abuse rewires the chemistry of the brain, which makes discontinuing use challenging without professional help.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” It also lists the following traits of addiction:
- Inability to consistently abstain from misusing a substance
- Impaired behavioral control
- Craving or having a strong desire for the substance of choice
- Dysfunctional emotional response
- Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships
5. People who are addicted to prescription drugs are different from people who are addicted to illegal drugs.
Oftentimes, individuals think that prescription drugs are safer to misuse since these types of drugs don’t have the negative connotations that “street” drugs do. The truth is that prescription pills can be just as addictive and dangerous as other drugs. Simply taking a higher dosage or taking more than prescribed by a doctor can lead someone down a slippery path of misuse. The chances of overdosing on prescription pills are high, especially when taken with other drugs and/or alcohol, as these combinations can exacerbate side effects and alter blood pressure and heart rate. Furthermore, counterfeit prescription pills like Oxycontin, Xanax, and Vicodin are popping up across the US, laced with fentanyl and other deadly drugs. Always purchase prescription pills from your medical provider.
According to the CDC, in 2020, there were 16,000 deaths involving prescription opioids which translates to 45 deaths a day. As the opioid epidemic continues, it is important to keep informing people of the dangers of misusing prescription pills and to quell any misconceptions related to their use even if they have been prescribed by their doctor.
6. People struggling with addiction don’t care about the effect they have on others.
Addiction impacts your loved one’s ability to think rationally and focus on healthy priorities. As a result, the person struggling may lash out at you or other people, neglect their personal relationships, and lie to hide their substance use. To some, it might even seem like they are choosing drugs over their loved ones. However, addiction is a disease and can make someone so hyper-focused on getting their next fix that it’s nearly impossible for them to think about anything else. Deep down, they still do care about you.
Some addicts may recognize that their lies and deceit are harming the people they care about the most or that they are spending more time with friends doing drugs together. They might have periods of guilt or shame, but quickly bury them with more substances. So, until the smoke clears and they are in recovery with a clear and honest mind, only then can they truly understand the extent of the damage done and fix their relationships.
7. Addiction treatment is one size fits all.
There is no magic pill or anything that can instantly treat your addiction overnight. What worked for someone you know might not work the same for you. This is a common misconception about addiction as illegitimate rehabs make false claims about promising recovery. Look out for quality addiction treatment programs that utilize biopsychosocial assessments to evaluate each client’s substance use, mental and physical health, trauma history, family dynamics, and more. Based on your gathered information, medical professionals can come up with a unique combination of addiction counseling/or wellness therapies tailored to fit your needs. Recovery is a lifelong process that requires patience, dedication, and a willingness to change.
8. If you receive medication-assisted treatment (MAT) you aren’t really sober.
MAT is a treatment option that uses prescription drugs, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to help support your addiction recovery. These medications – buprenorphine, suboxone, naloxone, and more – assist in leveling out your brain chemistry and relieving intense drug cravings.
Some people claim that medication-assisted treatment is dangerous because you are essentially “swapping out” one substance for another one. But there are many studies that prove MAT can be an effective tool in maintaining long-term recovery and preventing relapse.
Still, there are certain individuals that support a total abstinence approach and, therefore, believe that you aren’t “fully” sober until you stop taking all medications. But there are plenty of others who support the idea that medications combined with counseling and a structured recovery plan can help someone manage cravings and live a fulfilling, substance-free life. While the perspectives on this issue are shifting, there is still work to be done to reduce the stigma of MAT.
9. Relapse is a sign of failure
Many people view relapse as a sign of failure and may become disappointed with themselves or their loved one. However, as disappointing as it may be, it is still possible to get back on the right track. In fact, according to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40-60 percent of people who receive addiction treatment relapse at some point afterward. Relapse is often an expected part of recovery (but not inevitable). Your risk of relapse can increase based on different factors including cravings, poor mental health, a stressful life event, encountering a trigger, and more. Instead of looking at relapse as a defeat, consider it a small misstep in your recovery journey and an indicator that you might need extra treatment or support.