Three of the biggest addiction myths debunked
Can you remember the last time you saw an addict? Perhaps it was the guy you passed on the way to work this morning, clutching a can of beer? Wait, it was probably that homeless woman asking for money outside the station, she’s probably homeless because of drugs, right? Or maybe it was your well-heeled neighbour, your child’s maths teacher or the respectable-looking woman who served you your daily coffee. Perhaps it’s you.
The truth is, addiction doesn’t always look the same, doesn’t feel the same, doesn’t always involve drugs or alcohol, or always result in homelessness—and it certainly doesn’t follow a set of rules.
1. "Addiction is a choice, they can stop any time"
Just say no campaigns often miss the point
It’s a common misconception that addicts choose to become dependent, that they’re foolish for not stopping, that it’s entirely their own fault. But science disagrees.
Like every disorder (substance dependence and addictive disorders are listed in the DSM of Mental Disorders), addiction is multi-faceted and can be affected by:
- The environment
- Family patterns
All these factors play a part—but the brain plays the starring role.
Studies show that there are neurobiological differences between the brain of someone with addiction compared to someone without.
Not only does persistent substance misuse result in hard-wired changes in the brain, which can prime the brain to respond to cravings, stress or drug-related cues in a different way, but there are differences present before drug taking behaviour has even begun.
This indicates that some people are more susceptible to developing addiction.
2. "Addiction makes you a mess"
There are plenty of stereotypes of what an addict looks like but in reality, it’s not always obvious. Addiction cuts through race, gender, age and class barriers and doesn’t always present itself in a dishevelled manner.
In many cases, it is incredibly difficult to tell if someone is struggling with addiction. Highly-functioning addicts are able to hide their drug or alcohol abuse by continuing to perform well in their job and maintain their relationships with friends and families.
You can't always spot an addict
Mary Abruzzi, a counsellor, has written about how she led a ‘dual life’ as she became addicted to heroin.
She writes about how up until the point of rehab, she continued to work and covered her track marks with cardigans.
“I’m a smart, educated girl brimming with potential,” she writes, “how could I turn out to be a junkie?”
People who are struggling with an addiction may go to great lengths to ensure that they don’t appear to be any different on the outside. But becoming addicted to a substance or behaviour can have a ripple effect on a person’s life.
It can affect:
- Their ability to work well, or at all
- Problems with the law
- For those closest to that person, it can be extremely worrying and equally as difficult to address.
Help for those supporting an addict is available through the NHS.
3. "Illegal drugs are the worst"
Illegal drugs get the lion share of the publicity, but in 2014, an annual survey showed an upsurge in the misuse of prescription drugs in the UK, and The Guardian subsequently reported on the ‘first signs of a US-style epidemic’.
Like any other addiction, prescription drug dependence isn’t a choice and it’s often hard to see when reliance has taken the place of regular, prescribed use. As Cathryn Kemp writes, “I felt, like many other people, that because I'd been given the drugs by the hospital and my GP that they must be safe,” she says. “But in rehab any preconceptions I'd held about myself were stripped bare. I had crossed the invisible line between taking medication safely and addiction.”
Behavioural addictions are also common, some more than others, and can include:
- Plastic surgery
- Internet use
Behavioural addictions can be just as tough
The same reward pathways in the brain that are actioned by substances, and that reinforce addictive behaviours, are involved in these types of addictions too.
Depending on the severity, of course, some behavioural addictions can have serious implications and can be just as difficult to overcome.
Addiction is a medical condition. It’s never anyone’s choice to become dependent on a substance or behaviour, or for the resulting consequences to occur, and there are neurobiological influences at work.
It is distressing for the person battling their addiction as well as their loved ones. It’s hoped that by explaining some of the biggest misconceptions, we can help share the understanding that addiction is a condition that needs as much care as any other.