Think less about getting your loved one to admit to an addiction and more about what it takes to build a better life. ~ Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D.
Are you concerned about your child because of their drug or alcohol use?
Would a deeper understanding of addiction be helpful for you?
The scientific understanding of addiction is relatively new. So much about drug and alcohol use is based on a person’s beliefs, and not scientific research. So, it’s not surprising that myths about addiction are commonplace.
Family members are left wondering why someone who is suffering negative consequences, because of their substance, use is unwilling to change. Substance use is devastating for parents to watch and try to understand.
There are no two ways around it, addiction causes pain, frustration, anger, and fear for family members. However, the more information about addiction you have, the less stuck and helpless you will feel.
Understanding the truth about addiction will help you be more equipped to support your child in a healthy way. You will also feel less stressed and anxious. It critical to learn as much as you can about addiction if you are concerned about a loved one.
Addiction, defined by Webster’s Dictionary is a “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.”
This definition does not encompass other addictions or compulsive behavior such as gambling, food, or sex addiction. However, it gives a base line for considering addiction when it comes to drug or alcohol use.
No one is immune to addiction. No matter how smart or athletic your teen or young adult is, they are at risk if they start using substances. Drug use or alcohol misuse is a serious cry for help. Shaming or embarrassing your child only adds to the problem.
Substance use often begins in the teen years through partying with friends, accompanied by peer pressure to fit in. It can also start with a prescription given by a doctor for pain from an injury. The person finds the medication more and more appealing until they find that they can’t live without it. Prescription medication abuse can lead to heroin use, because it is so much cheaper to buy when you are using drugs daily.
We live in a culture that promotes prescription drug and alcohol use. Yet, society looks down on people when they have addiction problems. Too often, people with substance use issues are thought of as lazy, weak-willed, or someone whose morals are flawed.
In addition, rather than encourage change, labeling a person an “addict” tends to bring on more shame and have a negative connotation. People associate the word “addict” with being a liar, irresponsible, dangerous, and in denial about their substance use problem.
Likewise, there has been a common and traditional belief that there is only one answer to addiction. The answer is total abstinence. Studies are showing however, that especially for young people, the idea of one solution is a deterrent to their being willing to get help for their drug use.
We now know that one size for addiction does not fit all. There are many ways to find recovery or manage your life in a better way. Positive change does not need to look the same for every person.
Some of the risk factors for addiction are early use, genetics, mental health issues, environment, and early childhood trauma. However, why a person feels it makes sense for them to use drugs or alcohol can be complicated and diverse.
Understanding, compassion, kindness, as well as research-based approaches can give you the best chance of motivating your child or loved one to want to change.
Here are 10 myths and facts about addiction:
MYTH 1: Addicts and alcoholics need to reach rock bottom before they can accept help.
FACT: That is absolutely wrong. There is no evidence that that’s true. In fact, quite the contrary, “the earlier in the addiction process that you can intervene and get someone help, the more they have to live for. The more they have to get better for.” – Dr. Kathleen Brady, a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.
MYTH 2: Addiction is a willpower problem. People can stop, if they really want to.
FACT: Virtually no one wants alcohol/drug treatment. A person starts out as an occasional drug user, and that is a voluntary decision. But as time passes, something happens, and that person goes from being a voluntary drug user to being a compulsive drug user. Over time, continued use of addictive drugs changes your brain — some times in dramatic, toxic ways, at other times in more subtle ways, but virtually always in ways that result in compulsive and even uncontrollable use.
MYTH 3: Addicts are bad, crazy, or stupid. These people just have a character flaw.
FACT: Addiction is a brain disease. Evolving research shows that people with addiction issues are not bad people who need to get good, crazy people who need to get sane, or stupid people who need education. People with an addiction problem have a brain disease that goes beyond their use of drugs.
MYTH 4: Addicts should be punished, not treated, for using drugs.
FACT: Science is demonstrating that people with an addiction problem have a brain disease that causes them to have impaired control over their use. They need treatment for their changed brain chemistry, to learn to cope with triggers, and to learn to re-socialize without chemicals. Some people get into cycles of criminal behavior precisely because they must sustain their drug or alcohol use. Their bodies and brain tell them they will not survive without the substance.
MYTH 5: People don’t need treatment. They can stop using if they really want to.
FACT: It is extremely difficult for people addicted to drugs to achieve and maintain long-term abstinence. Research shows that long-term alcohol and other drug use actually changes a person’s brain function, causing them to crave the drug even more, making it increasingly difficult for the person to quit.
MYTH 6: Treatment just doesn’t work.
FACT: Treatment can help people. Studies show drug treatment reduces drug use by 40 to 60 percent and can significantly decrease criminal activity during and after treatment. Treatment reduces the risk of HIV infection and improves the prospects for employment, with gains of up to 40 percent after treatment.
MYTH 7: People have to want treatment in order for it to be effective.
FACT: People who are forced into treatment do recover. Addicted people may be pushed to enter a treatment program in a number of ways. Employers may threaten to fire a person unless treated; a spouse may threaten to leave the relationship, or the court may offer treatment in lieu of prison. In fact, research has shown that the outcomes for those who are legally mandated to enter treatment can be as good as the outcomes for those who entered treatment voluntarily.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse acknowledged that “even as an internationally respected researcher, she once believed that to be true. Volkow says, but she knows now that people who are forced into treatment do recover.”
MYTH 8: Addicts who continue to abuse alcohol/drugs after treatment are hopeless.
FACT: Addiction is a chronic disorder; occasional relapse does not mean failure. Stress from work or family problems, social cues (i.e. meeting individuals from one’s drug-using past), or their environment (i.e. encountering streets, objects, or even smells associated with alcohol or other drug use) can easily trigger a relapse. People in early recovery are most vulnerable to drug use during the few months immediately following their release from treatment.
MYTH 9: Addiction is treated behaviorally, so it must be a behavioral problem.
FACT: Addiction is a brain disease that can be treated by changing brain function, through several types of treatment. New brain scan studies are showing that behavioral treatments, counseling, and medications work similarly in changing brain function. New medications are being developed to help patients who have already become abstinent to further curb their craving for addicting drug and alcohol. These medications reduce the chances of relapse and enhance the effectiveness of existing therapies.
MYTH 10: Addicts can stop using/drinking simply by attending twelve step meetings or other clean and sober support, so they can’t have a brain disease.
FACT: For most people, working a twelve step program is a life-long commitment. Twelve steps meetings don’t work for everyone, even for many people who truly want to stop drinking/using. Some people require more structure in their work and living environments. On the basis of research, we know that a support system of people with a common experience is one of the active ingredients of recovery.
*Adapted from the following: Myths of Addiction. Carlton K. Erickson, Ph.D., University of Texas Addiction Science, SAMHSA, NIDA and Join Together, Partnership for a Drug Free America 2006 -SOURCES (unless otherwise noted): Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide. (October 1999). National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute of Health; Alan I. Leshner, Ph.D., former Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (2001)
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