It’s no secret that we currently have an epidemic of substance abuse in the US. Not only are opioids and heroin usage on the rise, but also the rate of alcoholism is skyrocketing. In fact, in 2015, the CDC reported the death rate from alcohol related illnesses such as cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol poisoning is at a 35-year high. Although most people are aware of the crisis, many may not have a clear understanding of what addiction really is. Let’s look at some of the common misconceptions.
7 Misconceptions about Alcoholism or Substance Abuse
1. If an addict had more willpower or greater moral strength they would just quit. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a chronic disease that affects many different functions of the brain, especially those related to reward, memory, and motivation. It is not a lack of willpower or a lack of morality. Some argue that addiction cannot be a disease because it involves a choice to use a substance. While it is true that this is the case at the start, the addicted brain takes over and causes cravings that are intense and hard to control. In addition, alcoholism is thought to be more than 50% genetic.
2. I can help my loved one by covering up the negative consequences of their behavior so they don’t get in trouble or to keep the peace at home. Covering up another’s behavior from addiction does not help and can “enable” the addiction to continue. While it is well meaning, it can make a bad situation worse and stops the addicted individual from suffering consequences that may contribute to them “hitting bottom” and hopefully changing. This does not mean we should not care or be compassionate, it just suggests allowing consequences to follow behavior.
3. Addiction only affects a certain kind of person. Addiction does not discriminate and impacts people of all socioeconomic groups, ethnic groups, races and gender. The rates may however vary slightly due to genetics. For some, opioid and heroin addiction begins as the result of prescribed pain medication taken for surgery or injury.
4. If my loved one really loved me they would stop. Many believe if they just threaten, beg, plea, yell they will be able to change their loved one’s behavior. While it is frustrating to watch a loved one suffer, the addicted brain is so strongly affected by the substance that judgment and decision-making processes become severely impaired. It is important for loved one’s to get help for themselves so they stop from becoming codependent. Groups like Alanon are very helpful support for family members
5. Once the drinking or substance abuse stops, the addict is cured. There is no cure for addiction. The only treatment is abstinence from the addictive substance. Abstinence alone without other support can lead to what is referred to as being a “dry drunk.” This is a term used to describe someone who is not using but is still living a dysfunctional life. By contrast, recovery refers to the process of abstinence combined with work to change dysfunctional behaviors. Depending on the severity of the addiction there are many options to begin the process. Treatment and recovery centers are designed to help the addict break away from the substance and replace with the needed support and coping tools. Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are also valuable support groups to help with recovery one day at a time. Other people work with a doctor or other qualified professional to help them quit. Relapse is not uncommon and an individual has a better chance of continued sobriety is they enlist support.
6. “If I have a job, a family, a home life, I don’t really have a problem.” Many fall into the category called “functional.” Functional alcoholics or addicts can function at work, have relationships and a successful home life at least for a while. Addiction is a progressive disease which worsens over time. Although hiding the behavior might be possible for a while, but generally the negative consequences to health, ability to work effectively and maintain positive relationships surface over time.
7. Recovery will make my life miserable, boring or lonely. While recovery can be hard work, especially at first, it is a time of restoring the ability to find pleasure in life without relying on a substance. As the brain heals over time, the reward center can begin to find pleasure in ways that do not involve a substance.
Rediscovering Joy through Recovery
While it would be wonderful if giving up a substance would cause instant relief, generally the process is challenging. Often because of the addiction there may be many facets of life that need repair. The heavy shame that weighs on those suffering in addiction robs their joy and lifting the shame is the first step in restoring that joy. Recovery encompasses not only abstinence but also positive lifestyle changes and examination of thoughts and beliefs that are not healthy. Since many used abused substances as a means of coping with stress, new healthy coping strategies need to be learned.
Creating a positive support system is critical in this process to allow a safe place to grow and change. Family members must also examine their own behaviors, thoughts and beliefs that may have helped enable and instead create healthy boundaries to restore positive relationships.
The good news is life in recovery can be a time for finding or reestablishing meaningful work or hobbies, a fun social life and enjoyable relationships – one day at a time.