Almost everything we think we know about addiction is wrong. These myths hurt families, friends and our community – and they make it harder for people to get well.
One of the top reasons people put off treatment is a fear of the social consequences. In a nutshell, they fear the label of "recovered addict."
Why? Because in many cases they risk facing social humiliation and a variety of legal restrictions on driving, housing, custody of children, business licensing, as well as an extended period of mandated drug testing, many of which stem from a misunderstanding of the disease of addiction.
There is an addiction gene
There is no single gene, or set of genes, that determines whether or not a person will develop a substance use. And even if a person's parents are users, it doesn't mean they will be too. Current addiction research shows that roughly 50% of addiction tendencies are attributable to genes.
That's a high percentage, but it still leaves half of the equation up to the environment and personal experiences. The addiction gene myth lulls many people into a false sense of confidence about their own drug use while paradoxically also discouraging many individuals from seeking treatment.
People with addictions are bad and need to be punished.
Reality: Sometimes, after prolonged substance use, people with addiction do horrible things. These bad acts are often impossible to understand. They are due to profound changes in the brain that compel them to lie, cheat, steal or worse, in order to keep using. While this behavior can't be condoned, it's important to understand that they do it because they are deeply sick and need help. Sick people need treatment, not punishment, to get well.
Drugs 'fry' your brain
Remember the 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 people in recovery 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.
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.
Marijuana is a 'gateway drug'
The addiction rate for marijuana is lower than that of alcohol, and there is little scientific evidence that it acts as a trigger for harder drugs.
While teen marijuana use is not to be encouraged, the real "gateway drug" risk might be from abusing prescription opioids and stimulants, like OxyContin, Vicodin and Adderall, or with inhalant drug use and cigarettes. These have strong addictive properties and more accessible to teens.
A 2010 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that among 12th graders, 8% abused Vicodin and 5.1% abused OxyContin. Inhalant use peaks in the 8th grade at around 17%, far earlier than all other drugs.
If someone relapses, they're a lost cause.
Reality: Try not to be too discouraged by a relapse, which is a re occurrence of symptoms of the disease. Addiction is a chronic illness very similar to type II diabetes or hypertension, meaning it requires lifelong management. Relapse is no more likely with addiction than it is for these other chronic illnesses.
Getting well involves changing deeply embedded behaviors, which takes time and effort, and sometimes there are setbacks. This doesn't mean that previous treatments failed, because the person with the disease still made progress overall in getting well.
A re occurrence of symptoms may be a sign that the treatment approach or other supports need to reevaluated or strengthened, or that other treatment methods are needed.
There is hope. Keep in mind that most people with substance use who suffer a re occurrence of symptoms will return to recovery.
If someone just uses willpower, they should be able to stop using.
Reality: For people who are vulnerable to addiction, use of drugs or alcohol can lead to profound changes in the brain. These changes hijack the natural “reward pathway” of the brain. In nature, rewards usually only come with effort and after a delay. But addictive substances shortcut this process and flood the brain with chemicals that signal pleasure.
When the disease takes hold, these changes in the brain erode a person’s self-control and ability to make sound decisions, while sending highly intense impulses to take drugs. These are the same circuits linked to survival, driving powerful urges no different from those driving the need to eat or drink water.
These overwhelming impulses help explain the compulsive and often baffling behavior around substance use. The person will keep using, even when terrible things are happening to them.
Addiction is for life This simply isn't true, and it places a huge emotional and psychological burden on those people in recovery. Addiction is a spectrum disorder, like depression, and every person is different.
While there are plenty of cases where people struggle for years to overcome addiction, many more cases reveal the opposite -- short-term users who manage to put the past behind them and lead normal and productive lives.