Myths, misconceptions, mistaken beliefs—they aren’t just the wrong answers to trivia questions. Misconceptions can be deadly, especially when it comes to the high-stakes problem of drug addiction.
Addicts and their loved ones face a number of major obstacles that are born out of commonplace misconceptions about drug addiction. Clinging to those misconceptions could kill you, while coming to a better understanding of drug addiction myths, and the truth behind them, could save your life.
Here are twelve of the most dangerous drug addiction myths debunked:
Myth #1: You have to hit rock bottom before you can overcome addiction.
This is one of the most widespread misconceptions about drug addiction. It is true that losing everything can be a powerful motivator in treatment, but waiting to hit bottom before you seek substance abuse treatment can have terrible, even deadly consequences. People can do irreparable harm to their brains and bodies through heavy drug use, and the disease of addiction grows stronger over time, making it progressively harder to treat. Addicts have a greater chance of overcoming substance abuse by starting treatment earlier.
Not only can addicts benefit from treatment without ever hitting rock bottom, they don’t even need to choose to get treatment themselves. Addicts who are forced into treatment by their employers or a court order, or who are pressured to seek treatment by friends or family, have the same chance of succeeding in treatment as people who independently decide to get sober.
Myth #2: Relapse means you’re a lost cause.
Substance abuse recovery is not always a step by step, orderly progression. Even a complete relapse, with the addict once again sinking into regular drug abuse, doesn’t mean that recovery has failed for good. It’s just another of the many misconceptions about drug addiction.
Giving up on recovery due to relapse is a tragic error. Not only does relapse not equal failure, an addict who has already been in treatment will never again have to start over from scratch. The life lessons and coping strategies that they learned in treatment (and from the experience of relapsing) are still there, waiting to be accessed and used when the addict is ready to try again.
Instead of taking setbacks as a sign of failure, the Association of Intervention Specialists suggest that relapse should be taken as “a signal to get back on track, either by going back to treatment or adjusting the treatment approach.”
Myth #3: Addiction is your life.
Addiction is a powerful, overwhelming disease that can consume the lives of addicts and their loved ones. This does not mean, however, that addiction is your life, now and forever. Of the many dangerous drug addiction myths, clinging to this belief can make you feel the most trapped and helpless. Fortunately, although drug addiction can feel like a prison, it isn’t a life sentence.
Successful recovery is possible, and addicts who achieve long-term sobriety discover a world full of possibilities they couldn’t even imagine while still caught in the cycle of addiction. Recovery is a commitment that requires ongoing maintenance—yes—but an existence fueled by healthy choices is full of the kind of joy and freedom that can’t survive in a life that revolves around substance abuse.
Myth #4: You can’t get addicted to prescription drugs.
This is one of the particularly risky drug addiction myths, and one that has helped promote the epidemic of opiate abuse that is causing so much suffering and death in the United States today. Prescription drugs are only safe when taken according to a strict set of guidelines established by the FDA, and passed on through your doctor via prescribing instructions.
Taking drugs that were not prescribed to you is especially dangerous, because all drugs carry risks, and a doctor will only prescribe a medication after carefully weighing the benefits against those risks as they apply to a specific patient. If you take a drug without that evaluation, and without instructions tailored to your specific body, the results can be disastrous.
Not following prescribing instructions when it comes to prescription opiates is a commonplace mistake. Intense pain leads people to take more medication more often, rapidly leading to tolerance, dependence and addiction. Addicts who have been cut off by their doctors will often shift from prescription opiates to heroin, because it is cheaper and more widely available. This phenomenon has led to a dramatic increase in heroin-related overdose.
Myth#5: Natural drugs are safer.
These days, “natural” has become a marketing tool used to get consumers to buy more and feel better about it. “All-natural” cookies may seem healthy, but they are still packed with natural fat and natural sugar, and eating too many can still lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other life-threatening complications.
Much like the myth that prescription drugs are safe, believing that natural drugs are safe is one of the more dangerous drug addiction myths. The truth is, almost any drug in any form can be hazardous. Nicotine is naturally found in tobacco, but a high enough dose can be deadly. Heroin and cocaine are both derived from plant sources, and people die from overdoses of these drugs every day.
Even marijuana, which has been approved for legal use in many states, can be dangerous. While some people can manage regular, moderate marijuana use, others will only use it as a jumping off point for riskier drug abuse. It isn’t always the drug itself that is the problem. Sometimes the individual brain and body chemistry of the user leads to calamity.
Myth #6: High alcohol tolerance means you aren’t an addict.
Although many drug addiction myths are perpetuated by society, the misconception that a high alcohol tolerance means you aren’t an addict is mainly perpetuated by alcoholics who want an excuse to keep drinking. This is a dangerous game of denial, as approximately 88,000 people in the U.S. suffer alcohol-related deaths each year.
Most people start to feel sick after a few drinks, making them physically incapable of finishing a pitcher of margaritas in one sitting, or downing two six packs while watching the big game. If you are able to drink this much or more and still feel fine, you have developed a tolerance due to a serious drinking problem, and you should seek professional help as soon as possible.
Myth #7: If you have a successful job you aren’t an addict.
One of the handiest misconceptions about drug addiction is that you aren’t really an addict if you are succeeding professionally. This myth is a great excuse for denying you have a problem. But holding down a good job, and even steadily advancing in your career, may simply mean that you are a high-functioning or functional addict.
Countless successful CEOs and practicing doctors and nurses have performed well at work for many years without showing any obvious signs of their high-functioning addiction—until they suffer a fatal overdose.
Myth #8: Addiction is a choice.
Of the many negative misconceptions about drug addiction, the myth that addiction is a choice is responsible for a tragic degree of anger and shame, both directed at the addict by others, and by the addict at themselves. But addiction isn’t an issue of willpower. On the contrary, drugs work on neurotransmitters in the brain, altering how you think, feel, and act.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drugs over stimulate the brain’s reward system, releasing large amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls motivation, emotions, pleasure and movement. Because dopamine is designed to reinforce natural, survival behaviors, this overproduction of dopamine essentially trains users to keep using.
In other words, the survival system designed to teach you that life-sustaining behaviors like eating, sleeping, and sex are good can be hacked by drugs, compelling you to pursue substance abuse as if your life depended on it. To make things worse, the amount of dopamine released via drugs is much more powerful than for normal activities, reinforcing the behavior that much more effectively.
These facts don’t make it impossible for an addict to give up drugs, but they do mean that addiction isn’t a habit you can just kick, cold turkey, on your own. Addiction is a complicated, compulsive disease of the brain that requires professional medical and psychological treatment.
Myth #9: Addicts are bad people.
One of the saddest drug addiction myths is the belief that addicts are simply bad people.
Not only does this amplify the shame addicts feel about their disease, it creates yet another obstacle between them and the treatment they need.
For someone looking at substance abuse from the outside, an addict may very well seem like a bad person. As previously established, addiction creates profound changes in the brain that actually train you to continue using, no matter the consequences. Due to this, addicts say and do terrible things they would never have even thought of before developing their addiction.
But addicts start using for a wide range of reasons, including admirable ones. A student may take amphetamines to help them study to become a doctor and help people. An alcoholic might drink to try and stabilize the intense highs and lows of an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. A heroin addict may have been completely sober before suffering chronic pain from a bad car accident. Unfortunately, once addicted, these decent people can lose control, with desperation pushing them to act in ways completely unlike their usual selves.
Myth #10: There is only one way to escape addiction.
Addiction is indeed a potentially fatal disease, but the idea that death is the only real way out of addiction is another item on the list of dangerous addiction myths that need to be debunked. With professional treatment, good self-care, and enough time, the negative effects of drugs on the brain can be repaired, and addicts can turn their lives around and become productive members of society.
By treating any co-occurring disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or panic disorders, much of the motivation behind drug abuse is removed. Meanwhile, abstinence and healthy habits such as getting a fix of dopamine from regular exercise instead of drugs or alcohol allow the brain and body to transform away from a system geared towards substance abuse and back to one with normal, healthy functioning.
Myth #11: Getting help is too expensive, or not accessible to everyone.
Many people are aware that they need addiction treatment, but don’t seek it because they believe in one of the anti-treatment misconceptions about drug addiction, such as getting help is too expensive, or not accessible due to certain locations or life situations.
The truth is that anyone can find and afford addiction treatment with the appropriate guidance from a doctor, an addiction hotline, the insurance specialists at nearby rehab centers, etc. There are numerous resources available to help people in need find treatment programs that will work for their individual circumstances—they just have to ask for help.
Myth #12: Getting help is shameful.
The final item on the list of drug addiction myths to debunk is that getting help is shameful. This misconception damages lives by preventing people from finding the healing they need and deserve.
Part of this myth stems from misconceptions about drug addiction being a weakness or a moral failing. This mindset led to old-fashioned addiction treatments that attempted to use shame-based and confrontational therapies to motivate recovery. More current, evidence-based treatment approaches understand that encouraging an addicts’ shame will actually backfire, making them more likely to relapse.
For a successful recovery, addicts need to own their substance abuse while also recognizing that they are not their disease. Treatments that soothe the soul and get addicts back in touch with their better selves—such as art and music therapy, yoga, mindfulness training, or outdoor adventure therapy—strengthen an individual’s commitment to recovery and improve long term recovery rates.