In the current time period, with addiction ravaging much of American society and the opioid crisis keeping addiction in the forefront of society’s minds through media stories and its impact on individuals, families and local communities, it is vital that we identify and overcome some of the misinformation or misconceptions about addiction. Many of the thoughts regarding addiction or individuals suffering from substance use disorder are not based in fact or science, but rather in old beliefs, biases or stigma. It is imperative that we begin seeing addiction for what it is: a public health issue, a healthcare issue and that individuals suffering from addiction are not “bad” or “morally corrupt” people but rather people suffering from a complex, chronic, progressive brain disease that often presents in poor or misguided attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. However, just like other chronic, progressive illnesses, with the proper and appropriate treatment and support, those suffering from addiction can be treated and recover. In order to change the way society looks at addiction, we need to examine misconceptions that occur regarding addiction that for sufferers can often be a barrier to recovery.
1) Not all people suffering from addiction are the same. Substance Use Disorder is a spectrum.
This is important for people to understand, both in terms of the treatment and support an individual receives as well as the perception that society has and judges people with an addiction. Addiction is a complex issue and often times accompanied by a co-occurring mental health issue. Therefore, as an example: An 18 year old male that uses marijuana semi-regularly, has no higher education or career and is also diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder is not the same as a 45 year old divorced mother of three who has a career and binges on alcohol. Both of these individuals are altogether different than a trans-male patient using crystal meth daily with a history of complex trauma or a failure-to-launch 28 year old married female with a history of opioid misuse. These three individuals, although all suffering from substance use disorder, potentially fall on different areas of an SUD spectrum and have different clinical, family systems, supportive and social needs and pathologies and therefore the approach and therapeutic and medical treatments will be different. We must stop lumping together individuals with addiction in terms of how we view them or what their treatment will look like, not so much depending on the actual substance of misuse but rather on the clinical needs of the patient.
2) It is possible to treat and recover from addiction. The old 12 Step adage “Once an addict, always an addict” isn’t accurate.
Many 12 Step fellowships use the phrases “once an addict, always an addict” or that as an addict, you’re “never recovered and always be recovering.” Putting aside the language of the book Alcoholics Anonymous says that the main manuscript in that fellowship is the story of how many men and women “recovered from alcoholism,” it is important to see why this language and this type of thinking can cause a barrier for recovery. Telling someone they will always be sick is not doing them any help in their treatment or recovery. Addiction should be looked at in the same light as other chronic, relapsing diseases such as diabetes. Just because someone on a substance use disorder spectrum has a reemergence of symptoms does not make them “still sick” or because these types of incidents occur does not mean we should be branding the individual “always an addict.” In fact, using the language of the 12 Step rooms, many people in recovery believe that addiction can be thought with the analogy of a broken bone. A person can break their leg. If the person goes gets the medical treatment necessary, the bone will heal and the leg will operate fine again. This person has recovered from a broken leg. It does not mean they are “cured” from ever breaking their leg again, but it does mean they have recovered and are healthy. Shaming language that tells people they are sick and always will be sick and well never get better from being sick is a huge barrier for a person suffering from addiction to overcome. Which brings up the next point…
3) Language is important.
The language that we use surrounding addiction is important. Society must stop framing people suffering from substance use disorder in a negative light. Words like “addict” do not help. Society must revise the language of addiction and bring the way we think about addiction into a public health and/or healthcare space. There are a number of research studies that demonstrate that action against changing or breaking stigma begins by choosing the right word and language. Words like “abuse” imply willful misconduct, and perpetuate stigma and the belief that individuals suffering from addiction are bad or morally corrupt. This type of stigma also shows to lessen the quality of care that those in need will receive.
4) Individuals suffering from addiction are not “bad” or “evil” or “morally corrupt.”
Addiction touches us all. Regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age or income, millions of Americans are impacted by addiction daily. Addiction, a chronic, progressive illness, is the only such medical condition that invokes such hostility and visceral reactions when discussing the person suffering. Words and phrases like “weak-willed,” “bad person” or “immoral” are commonly used. Look at any discussing on social media regarding addiction and invariably there will be comments that say things like “let them die” or “they made the choice so now live with it.” There are movements to stop the use of the overdose reversal drug Narcan by people who believe those that overdose “deserve it” and shouldn’t be revived. Imagine thinking that about someone having a heart attack or stroke? It is absolutely true that many people suffering from addiction do terrible things or behave in awful ways, but these types of behaviors and actions are symptoms of the illness and a result of a hijacked brain prolonged by substance misuse. In order to recover, these individuals needs treatment and support. They are human beings suffering from an illness. They are not bad or evil people.
5) Addiction is not a choice.
Speaking to the last point, addiction is not a choice. Recovery from addiction does not happen by a person making a choice to stop or exercising will-power. People do not choose to get addicted. Yes, there are choices made to initially try alcohol, marijuana or other dangerous substances, but the reason one person becomes addicted while another does not has nothing to do with choice. It is a complex issue that involves biological, environmental and genetic factors. Studies have shown that an addicted brain acts very different than a healthy brain. The reward system is malfunctioning. The brain becomes hijacked and normal functioning of the brain does not occur. Addiction is not a choice and we need to stop perceiving those addicted as individuals choosing the use and misuse and in turn behave and act in certain ways that allows them to continue or prolong their substance misuse. This is not saying that individuals do not deserve to be held responsible for their actions but it does mean that they are dealing with a brain whose reward system is not functioning properly. Think of someone with an addiction and that their substances equated the food and water of a normal functioning person. What types of behaviors or actions would you take if you were withheld food and water to survive? Would you do things that went against your character or your natural instincts or against your moral code, if it meant doing so would get you the food and water you needed after days of not eating or drinking? Addiction is similar to this, so to believe that addiction is a choice is not only shaming to the individual but it is also simply inaccurate.
It is important that we as a society begin to rethink the way we think, feel and talk about addiction and substance use disorder. We need to be cognizant of how to treat individuals suffering, that we do not create more barriers for them, that we do not shame or demean them, and that we support them in getting the help they need. We need to begin to view addiction through its accurate lens: as a health issue that has become a public health crisis. We need to become educated. We need to watch out language. We need to understand before we judge. Only by breaking down barriers and stigma surrounding addiction will we as a society make any positive changes into stemming the tide of the current addiction pandemic devastating our communities.
If you or someone you know is in need of help because of drug and/or alcohol abuse or addiction, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive drug addiction treatment Washington DC, New Jersey, Maryland area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs.
Please give us a call at (410) 773-0500 or email our team at [email protected]. For more information on all of our drug addiction and alcohol addiction services and recovery resources, please visit our website at www.marylandaddictionrecovery.com.