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Opioid Crisis: Common myths about addiction

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Human nature leads us to create explanations for things we don’t understand. We encounter large problems and try to apply our limited experience or our belief system to them so we can feel like we understand them and they aren’t so intimidating. Most commonly believed myths are relatively harmless, like believing you will get cramps if you swim right after eating. But when it comes to addiction, the myths that exist cost lives with regularity. Here are a few of the more common ones.

Alcoholics and addicts are bad people.

The image of an alcoholic or addict being someone who lives under a bridge couldn’t be further from the truth. Addiction crosses all societal boundaries. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how educated you are, what race you were born or what religion you believe. Interestingly, those in the field say if there is any characteristics that define addicts or alcoholics, they are above average when it comes to intelligence and creativity.

Alcohol isn’t so bad because it is legal.

This dangerous myth seems to be used mostly by alcoholics who think that since they are still “functioning” at work or at home they are somehow different. First, alcohol is a drug, and the very nature of addiction is that it “progresses,” or gets worse over any considerable length of time. Alcohol is the deadliest drug. And when you consider the collateral damage it causes the cost to society only worsens. Car wrecks, drowning, domestic and public violence and a host of other side effects of alcohol take a toll on society that does not reflect in the reported numbers of deaths from alcoholism.

However, from an addiction standpoint there does seem to be one difference with alcohol. Everyone who drinks does not become an alcoholic – in fact far from it. Many other drugs seem to addict anyone who takes them for any considerable amount of time, and in the case of some drugs it seems that addiction is immediate. Every hear of recreational opiate abuse or a casual crack cocaine smoker?

An addict or alcoholic must hit “rock bottom” if they are going to recover.

I asked one local counselor to explain “rock bottom” to me. She said “You hit your rock bottom when you quit digging.” One man I spoke with realized in his teens that when he drank he wanted more and that he always had some sort of negative consequence when he drank. Now in his fifties, he has not had a drink since.

For the vast majority of people addicted, it seems there has to be some “consequence” of their behavior that is severe enough to motivate them to seek help. Unfortunately, for a very high percentage their addiction progresses to the point where their tolerance for the pain and consequences of addiction exceeds the threshold of death.

Compounding this issue is that one of the most common symptoms of addiction is that the addiction itself tells the one suffering that “they don’t have a problem.” It seems that little progress can be made with anyone addicted until this bubble of self-deceit is burst. And people of all types recover from all types of addictions on a regular basis, so there is no truly valid excuses for not being able to quit. However, it is very rare for someone to “get sober on their own.” Addiction’s tentacles grasp one’s mind, body and soul and without outside help there seems to be little chance of recovery.

I’m not addicted because my doctor gave me the prescription.

The effects a drug has on the body and mind don’t change based on where you got the drug from. In fact, in some cases the prescription forms of drugs are much purer than their “street” counterparts; hence they may in fact be MORE addictive.

What a person’s intentions were when they started taking a drug also has no bearing on whether they become addicted or not. Millions of people take dangerous drugs as prescribed without an issue, but if you find yourself taking more of the prescription than is called for, lobbying the doctor for a bigger or more potent prescription or starting to supplement the prescription with alcohol or other drugs it may well be time to take a hard look at what is going on.

If an alcoholic or an addict really wanted to stop, they would just stop.

This myth probably kills more alcoholics and addicts than any other. The idea that will-power can overcome addiction is as wrong as it is popular. What happens in reality is that the addicted one tries time and again to “quit on their own” and gives up, thinking they cannot overcome it.

Once real addiction takes hold, choice is no longer a part of the equation. Changes in brain and body chemistry happen that lead the person to desire the drug above everything else in life. Oddly, they usually don’t even seem to recognize that this has become the case. It is a force far stronger than any personal “will power” and requires professional help to address.

Treatments and programs cure addiction.

I asked a long time member of a 12-step program why she continued going to regularly attend meetings after 30 years. She said: “One thing that has never changed since the last time I drank is what happens if I take a drink or ingest any addictive substance. If I take a drink, the drink then takes a drink and then the drink takes me. It doesn’t matter how much I don’t want that to happen; I just finally had to concede that for me, that is what happens. The day after my last drunk I was one drink away from blowing my life up again, and that remains true today. It is rare, but I have seen people with many years of sobriety that relapse for one reason or another and are dead or institutionalized within weeks. “

“But just as important as that, I continue going to meetings because someone has to be there to reach out to the new-comer who is struggling with this baffling disease and has mustered the courage to walk into a meeting. I get a lot out of being there to help without any agenda besides trying to help. I will never be ‘cured’ of my addiction, but I do get to live a happy life as long as I am careful to take the actions that keep me sober each and every day.”

There are many other false beliefs that abound around addiction – one counselor told me that just as soon as he thinks he has heard them all another one comes along. But if you or someone you love are dealing with addiction, the consequences of not being armed with the proper facts can be catastrophic. This is one area of life that it just isn’t worth trying to “go it alone.” Help is much closer than you think if you just reach out.

This article series is meant to educate the community about addiction in general and the Opioid Crisis in specific that is affecting communities nationwide. We are hopeful that this series will make a difference. When appropriate the names will be changed of those the articles feature. The author welcomes inquiries or shared experiences, and can be reached at David@PhoenixSC.org.

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