“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have imperiled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of unsupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
~Edgar Allen Poe
There is no group of people suffering from a specific illness who also suffer from as much misunderstanding, stereotyping, and societal bias as the group made up of alcoholics and addicts.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are approximately 22.7 million Americans who need alcohol or drug treatment. That is approximately one out of every 14 people. What this means is that virtually everyone knows someone who abuses drugs or alcohol.
Yet despite this, there are a number of persistent myths that surround addiction and the people who suffer from it.
Myth #1 – Addiction Is a Choice
As far back as 1904, there were advertisements in newspapers that called alcoholism a “disease”. More formally, in 1956 it was recognized as an “illness” by the American Medical Association. Finally, in 1991, alcoholism was officially classified as a disease by the International Classification of Diseases, qualifying under both the medical and psychiatric sections. This classification was subsequently endorsed by the AMA.
Even today, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists as separate disorders addictions to various substances – stimulant use disorder, alcohol use disorder, etc. They even go as far as specifically listing 11 separate symptoms that if present, justify a clinical diagnosis.
Addictive behaviors are no more a choice than diabetes or cancer.
Myth #2 – Addiction Is a Character Flaw
Once again, addiction is a disease of the brain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, science is shown that long-term drug abuse actually changes an individual’s brain in ways that actually enforce and encourage drug-taking.
Harvard Medical School has published reports explaining that when human beings perform any sort of action that is done to fulfill a desire or satisfy a need, the body releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure.
This reward – this production of pleasure – is recorded by the brain, making it much more likely that an individual repeats that behavior or action.
When dopamine is produced artificially through the use of drugs, the body’s natural ability to produce it is reduced. At the same time, the artificial stimulation provided by the drug – stimulation that is immediate and without required effort – “trains” the brain to crave more and more of the drug.
Behavior that is directed by the brain is not due to a lack of character.
Myth #3 – the Addict Has To Want Help for It to Be Effective
In 2011, a study presented at the American Psychiatric Association found that less than 10% of patients with addiction disorders seek treatment. The majority of substance abusers do so because they have been coerced by external influences – by court order, for example.
It is not exaggeration to say that virtually no one in active addiction wants to go to drug treatment. Most go because of court or family intervention.
Study after study has shown convincingly that when an individual enters treatment, the most important factor is the length of that treatment, not the route that brought them there. Often, a person gets better and learns how to manage their disease in spite of themselves.
Myth #4 – Treatment Either Works or It Doesn’t
When it comes to alcoholism or substance abuse, relapse is always a real possibility. Some estimates, such as one reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, put the relapse rate for drug addiction at between 40%-60%.
Although at first glance that seems high, it is comparable to the relapse rate with other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or hypertension. In fact, hypertension and asthma have relapse rates between 50%-70%.
There are numerous approaches to and alcohol and drug addiction treatment, and just because one specific treatment doesn’t work with a particular individual, that does not mean that there is not help to be had.
For many addicts/alcoholics, it may be necessary to try a number of different doctors, programs, and treatment centers and a half before they find a personal match that resonates with them.
It is not easy to suffer from an addiction, and it is not easy to find one’s path to recovery. It gets harder when myths and misconceptions get in the way.
When you or someone you love has a substance that abuse problem, one of the first and most important things you can do is to properly educate yourself about the disease. Only when you know the truth about what to expect can you make an effective plan about what to do next.