For those who’ve never battled addiction, the idea of it is perplexing. Is addiction a real illness? Can’t you just stop? What’s wrong with you?
Irvin, a 38-year-old writer recently diagnosed with sex and love addiction, says he completely understands the confusion.
“It’s no easier for anyone addicted to substances or alcohol or gambling, but for me as a sex addict, the judgment out there is really apparent,” he shares. “I’ve heard it all. ‘Addiction’s just an excuse,’ or ‘What a loser,’ or ‘That’s just pathetic.’
“I get it. It’s hard to wrap your mind around. And the truth is that unless you’ve lived it, or have studied it, it’s hard to truly understand what an addicted person has gone through or is going through. And it’s human nature to pass judgment sometimes.
“All the misconceptions out there, I think, keep people from looking for help when they need it because a) they’re already living in such despair and b) they really don’t need the brutal judgment of people.
“If all the assumptions and misconceptions about addictions can just be cleared up, I think that’s when we can really start the healing process for a lot of people.”
Following are some of the most common myths about addiction – and the truth behind each myth.
Myth #1: Addiction is just lack of willpower.
Truth: Addiction is classified by medical associations worldwide as a chronic disease, meaning it’s a long-lasting disease that can be controlled, but never cured.
When a person is diagnosed with cancer, diabetes or another chronic illness, society doesn’t question it as they do when a person is diagnosed with addiction. The truth is that addiction is no less of a legitimate condition than cancer or diabetes. What addiction does is change the brain of the individual, impairing his or her ability to practice self-control regardless of logic or reason. Because addiction completely alters the way a person’s brain and body performs, they’re unable to stop themselves from using.
The abused substance (or in some circumstances, the behavior) causes pleasure chemicals to be released in the brain. Over time, that release changes the parts of the brain that are in charge of controlling pleasure. They even alter the portions of the brain that control motivation and memory. Because of this, addicts become reliant on the substance or behavior, experiencing wild cravings and choosing their substances of choice over what’s truly necessary to live, like food, water and even love.
Myth #2: Addiction is a sign of immorality.
Truth: No one chooses to become an addict.
There’s a grave misconception out there that addicted people lack morals, and that they’re inherently bad people. That’s simply untrue. Many studies have confirmed that people turn to drugs and alcohol and other addictive behaviours due to a number of factors, including mental illness, exposure to abuse (including physical, verbal, sexual or emotional), exposure to trauma or tragedy, PTSD, or a family history of substance abuse. Genetics have been said to account for as much as 75% of risk for addiction.
Myth #3: All addicts are the same. They’re all low-income criminals from the same shady parts of town.
Truth: Addiction knows no gender, race, creed or income level. Addiction isn’t selective. Addiction can affect anyone of any age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
High-functioning addicts are common; these people achieve great success professionally, have a vast social network, and have families. They successfully hide their addiction and may be able to keep their friends and family in the dark for years, until their addiction becomes completely unmanageable and they lose complete control.
Myth #4: An addict has to hit rock bottom before they can be helped.
Truth: “Rock bottom” is different for everyone, so already, this myth is completely untrue. To add to that, it’s best not to let a loved one keep descending into the darkness of addiction before we help them seek treatment.
Substances often take the place of legitimate, positive relationships for the addict, so connections are important when a person is seeking sobriety. Leaving a person to hit rock bottom – whether our version of rock bottom or theirs – leaves them vulnerable and alone. We would serve our addicted loved ones best by connecting and providing support as soon as we are able, not when we think they can’t spiral any further.
Myth #5: “If you loved me, you would just stop using.”
Truth: Addiction doesn’t work this way; it doesn’t respond to passionate demands to stop. Because addiction is not a choice, the addicted person just can’t shut it off – not without assistance.
Addiction isn’t just about snapping one’s fingers and saying, “Okay, I’m done using now.” Although the addicted individual does indeed know love, how the addiction has altered the brain is so significant that it overcomes all else in the addict’s life, including love.
If you have a loved one who is abusing, do what you can to have open conversations about the addiction. Learn everything you can about addiction, and understand that everyone’s journey through addiction and into recovery is different. With as much compassion as you can gather, change the way you might have previously thought about addiction and the people who are living through addiction. It’s then that you’ll create meaningful change – both in your life and in the life of your addicted loved one.