Stigma is one of the biggest reasons why so many addicts are ashamed of getting help. Historically, addiction has been so stigmatized and shrouded in so many harmful misconceptions that, for a long time, even publicly mentioning that you’ve struggled with it could be risky to relationships with family and friends and even put your job security at risk.
Thankfully, that attitude is slowly changing; people are beginning to realize that addiction isn’t a moral failing and is, in fact, a very complicated and nuanced illness. Treatment for substance use disorder is becoming more readily available and successful on a worldwide scale.
Still, though, in my years of recovery, I’ve encountered no shortage of damaging stereotypes and misconceptions about addicts. Here are three of them that are particularly insidious, as well as why they’re so harmful and what we can do to move past them to gain a more comprehensive, compassionate outlook on addiction and recovery.
1. “Once an addict, always an addict.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this, particularly from non-addicts who have people struggling with substance abuse in their families.
I can understand where they’re coming from; unfortunately, relapse rates are high amongst addicts across the board, regardless of the substance(s) we struggle with. As an outsider, seeing an addict you love fail multiple times only to return to toxic behaviors and make little progress can be devastating and even infuriating.
But we can and do recover, and addiction is not a death sentence. While it’s true that relapse rates are quite high amongst addicts in recovery, it is important to understand that relapsing doesn’t mean someone is incapable of recovering. Usually, it just means the addict needs better coping mechanisms and support.
I know very few addicts who have never relapsed, but I know many who found long-term success despite relapsing several times early on, including myself.
2. “You can spot an addict from a mile away.”
A lot of people think addicts look a certain way or come from certain circumstances, but now more than ever we come from all walks of life and all kinds of backgrounds.
People of all income levels, races, and genders struggle with addiction, and most of us don’t look at all how you would “expect” an addict to look. Many addicts maintain jobs, relationships, and other important obligations while struggling immensely behind the scenes and don’t seek help until it’s too late because we think we’re functioning and “blending in” well enough.
It’s important to never assume someone is immune to addiction simply because they come from a certain background. This illness affects everyone, and we need to look beyond our limiting ideas of what we think addiction looks like in order to reach more people who are struggling with it.
3. “Addiction is a choice.”
This is probably the most complicated one to untangle.
While it’s true that nobody forces an addict to use drugs initially, it’s essential to look beyond this and consider the many reasons why someone starts using in the first place.
In my case, I started using when I was 14 years old because I was in a very dark place in terms of my mental health and had no real coping mechanisms to deal with it. I was a child who had no idea what I was actually getting into and just wanted the pain to stop, no matter what.
I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but know this: the Venn diagram of traumatized, mentally ill people and addicts is essentially a circle.
What I mean by this is the rates of trauma, abuse, and mental illness are extremely high amongst addicts. If you don’t have any resources or outlets for dealing with the pain that comes with these experiences, it’s extremely tempting to know that a certain substance can numb the pain, even for a little while...even if we instinctively know to some extent that it’s wrong.
Some important statistics to consider:
Children who experience some form of trauma are five times more likely to suffer from alcoholism or substance use disorder later in life.
Comorbidity of substance use disorder and other mental illnesses like PTSD, depression, and panic disorder is extremely high.
When surveying adolescents receiving treatment for substance use disorder, as many as 70% of them had some kind of major traumatic experience early on in their lives.
Now, knowing that people with these traumatizing, painful experiences are so much more likely to suffer from addiction, shouldn’t we be looking at addiction in a more compassionate way? Shouldn’t we consider why people make the choice to use in the first place? Let us know what you think.