Awareness of the truth behind these mistaken ideas can help improve short-term and long-term outcomes for those affected by addiction and the public in general.
Over 20 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or have diagnosable symptoms of non-addicted substance abuse[i]. Substance use problems are treatable. Despite this fact, many harmful myths about the nature of addiction and addiction treatment continue to circulate. Awareness of the truth behind these mistaken ideas can help improve short-term and long-term outcomes for those affected by addiction and the public in general.
Addiction is marked by loss of control over the amount of drugs or alcohol a person consumes, as well as how often substance use takes place. Many people assume that this inability to control behavior indicates the presence of a character flaw. However, this is not the case.
Today, doctors, researchers and addiction specialists understand that addiction qualifies as a form of chronic brain illness[ii]. This illness develops when the frequent use of drugs or alcohol changes the brain’s basic operating conditions. Among other things, alterations in normal function include an expectation that a certain amount of a given substance will be consumed each day.
When consumption falls below the established amount, the brain motivates a return to its “new normal” by producing the extremely unpleasant, sometimes dangerous symptoms of withdrawal. In addition, the brain triggers intense cravings for more substance intake, even in the absence of other withdrawal symptoms. Character has nothing to do with the urge to avoid withdrawal or the inability to decide how often substance use occurs.
This second common myth is linked with the first. It’s true that the typical substance user chooses to start consuming drugs or alcohol. However, over time, a voluntary user can gradually slip into a pattern of overconsumption that sets the stage for long-term changes in normal brain function[iii].
On any specific day, people involved in these evolving patterns can fail to recognize what’s happening. By the time awareness of a real problem arises, addiction may already be a fact of life.
When they learn that addiction is a disease, some people make the assumption that there’s nothing they can do—they simply must accept the fact that they or their loved ones have a chronic condition from which they can’t recover. The same feelings may arise when confronting the reality that some people struggle with their drug or alcohol problems for years, decades or an entire lifetime.
The truth is that doctors and other addiction specialists have a broad array of tools available to help people affected by drug or alcohol-related substance problems. Almost all forms of substance treatment include some type of counseling, behavioral therapy or psychotherapy, which can help program participants:
Depending on the substance that triggered addiction, treatment may also include medications designed to ease withdrawal symptoms or lower the odds for a relapse. Many people in treatment take further steps by enrolling in a mutually supporting self-help group.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that very few people who have a substance use disorder want to enter a treatment program. This fact partly explains the large gap between the number of those affected and the number who receive help. Many people who enter treatment do so for one of two reasons: their family, friends or loved ones pressure them to enroll, or a judge orders them to enroll.
Research shows that people who voluntarily enter substance treatment do not have a greater chance of making progress than people who feel pressured to start treatment. In fact, a compelling reason to achieve sobriety is the chief factor in success. It doesn’t matter if the compelling force comes from the affected person or from another person, authority or institution.
Many people think that addiction treatment is a one-time, win-or-lose proposition—that anyone who makes it through the process is guaranteed long-term success, and anyone who fails to complete treatment the first time around will always suffer from the effects of uncontrolled addiction.
However, in actuality, addiction specialists view a relapse back into drug or alcohol use as a predictable setback to eventual recovery. Some people relapse while still enrolled in treatment, while others return to substance abuse after successfully completing treatment.
In either case, there is nothing preventing the affected person from regaining sobriety[iv]. If anything, a relapse can serve as an opportunity to recommit to treatment. It can also serve as a reminder of what can happen to anyone who underestimates the ongoing challenges of the recovery process. In addition, doctors can use the information gathered during a relapse to improve their treatment plans and reduce the risks for further setbacks.
Substance problems come in mild, moderate and severe forms. Some people think that they don’t need help until their addiction reaches an advanced state. However, anyone who even suspects they have a substance addiction can seek help. In fact, it’s easier for doctors to address the symptoms of mild or moderate problems than severe problems. This means there is a clear benefit to seeking substance treatment as soon as possible.
At Transformations Treatment Center, we offer professional assistance for anyone affected by drug or alcohol addiction. Our research-based programs are targeted at the root causes of substance use problems. For every client, we establish individualized treatment plans that provide the greatest possible benefit and provide a point of departure for long-term sobriety.