Updated July 18, 2023
When you hear the term "addiction," what is the first image that comes to mind?
If you are like most people, you may have pictured a teenager slumped on a park bench, dressed in dirty, wrinkled clothes. Perhaps you pictured them in a group, laughing at the "thrill" of getting high. Or, maybe you pictured them alone, eyes downcast and hands in their pockets, waiting for the next hit.
Sadly, that stereotype has cemented its way into popular culture to the detriment of many people struggling with addiction. While it is true that drug and alcohol use in college-aged people is most prevalent, the truth is that addiction to illicit drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and hallucinogens, is also increasing among Baby Boomers — a generation that has always been known for higher rates of drug addiction.
Substance use includes more than addiction to illegal drugs. The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 15.1 million adults struggle with alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder is the medical term for the chronic brain disease that prompts an individual to compulsively drink large amounts of alcohol, resulting in loss of control and negative personality issues when they are not drinking.
Sadly, addiction to prescription drugs has also become more prevalent. The availability of these "doctor-sanctioned" substances has led to large numbers of people of varying ages and economic backgrounds finding themselves in a situation they never anticipated or expected.
Overcoming the cultural stereotype is an important first step — both for an individual struggling with an addiction, as well as their friends and families who are attempting to help them. In general, 10 common misconceptions must be addressed and overcome for someone with a drug or alcohol addiction to truly receive the help they need to regain control over themselves and their life.
Yes, most people choose to consume drugs or alcohol for the first time. Still, over time, the use of these substances can change the chemistry of your brain, specifically in the areas that release feelings of pleasure and relaxation. These areas are sometimes called the "reward circuit" because they are the way your brain tells your body when it experiences something good and wants to experience that again. The brain's chemistry starts to change when a person begins to use and misuse substances like drugs or alcohol. Not only does the "reward circuit" in your brain tell your body that it likes how it feels and wants more, but it also makes those cells less available, meaning the brain will require more and more of that substance to achieve the same feelings of pleasure you had in the beginning.
As an individual continues to seek out those feelings of pleasure and reward, they will continue to need more and more of a substance to achieve those feelings. Eventually, they cannot stop, even if they truly want to. It's not like resolving not to eat chocolate cake or chew your fingernails for a month. Addiction has altered a person's brain function to the point where they cannot function without the substance — or without help.
Some people mistakenly believe that alcohol addiction isn't as serious as drug addiction because alcohol is legal. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Whether or not a substance is "legal" should never determine whether someone is being harmed by its continued use. Over time, alcohol addiction damages the brain, as we mentioned earlier. Alcohol can also potentially damage your heart, liver and pancreas, as well as increase an individual's risk for certain cancers. Excessive drinking can also weaken your immune system, which leaves your body open to a variety of other serious illnesses. Besides the serious physical repercussions to alcohol addiction, alcohol impairs judgment, ultimately causing harm to relationships, damage to property, loss of employment and potentially even the death of the person who is addicted or someone they hurt while under the influence.
While many people admit that they first tried illicit drugs because they were curious about how they would feel, most "addicts" don't become addicts because they are inherently bad people. In many cases, people become addicted to a substance because it takes away the loneliness, pain or stress that they are experiencing. Certain environmental factors, social attitudes and even genetics can also impact addiction. The truth is addiction is a much more complex issue than a simple moral shortcoming.
As we demonstrated at the beginning, most people think of someone with an addiction as an individual with a disheveled appearance, of lower socioeconomic standing with no ambition and who may have a criminal record or be homeless. This is not usually true. In fact, many people who are caught in the throes of substance use can be considered "high functioning." This means they still work and engage in the hobbies they did previously, and, to a general observer, they are doing fine.
For well-meaning friends and family, this can be an excuse to turn a blind eye and allow someone with an addiction to continue their destructive behaviors until someone gets hurt. While we certainly understand the desire not to stir up trouble or overreact to a situation, if you suspect that a loved one may have a "high-functioning" addiction, it is still important that they receive help as soon as possible.
Within the United States, 9% of adults have or will misuse prescription drugs during their lifetime. Opioid prescription deaths increased by 18% from 2017 to 2021. Doctors often prescribe opioids for pain relief, but these medications quickly become dangerous when people take them for too long or in ways they were never intended to. Opioids are meant to be taken for a short time for pain, not to cope with stress or emotional pain or, in the case of teens and young adults, as a social activity.
Addiction to prescription drugs can sometimes be hard to identify because it does not follow any of the stereotypes we mentioned earlier. It can impact men and women, young adults or seniors and people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. While teens and young adults are the most likely to become addicted to prescription drugs, there is evidence that older adults are increasingly at risk for prescription drug misuse because they typically take more medication than younger adults and they also tend to consume alcohol without thinking how it may impact the effectiveness of the medication in their bodies.
Teenagers and young adults do have the highest rates of substance use and addiction. In fact, in 2015, it was estimated that nearly 5% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 had a substance use disorder. However, statistics like this cover up the fact that addiction does not know age boundaries. Nearly 14% of senior admissions to an emergency room are related to a drug or alcohol problem, and almost 13% of women over the age of 18 used illicit drugs in the last year.
You can't judge a person's "risk" for addiction by their age. If you or a loved one — regardless of age — are struggling with substance use, it is important to get help as soon as possible. There are a variety of recovery programs available, so you'll want to consult with your doctor or a mental health professional to determine the best option for your situation.
While addiction is considered a "chronic" condition, which means that it is always present in the body and the brain, it can be treated and managed like many other chronic conditions. Today's treatments for substance use and addiction are designed to treat the areas in the brain that have become damaged by repeated use and misuse. Treatments also teach individuals healthy coping strategies for living life and confronting some of the thought patterns and situations that may have led to addiction in the first place.
People struggling with addiction are vulnerable to relapse, but relapse does not indicate that treatment has failed. Treatment of substance use and addiction involves changes in thought patterns and behaviors that have been cultivated over time. Therefore, it will take time to replace them with newer, healthier thoughts and behaviors. When an individual does relapse, it may be in response to being confronted with some of the situations that led to their desire to use drugs or alcohol. Or, it may indicate that some adjustments to their treatment program are required.
Relapse rates for people with substance addiction are similar to those of other chronic medical conditions. When people hear this, they are often discouraged and immediately deem all treatment programs a failure. The problem with that is that they are not looking at the bigger picture. Because addiction to drugs or alcohol is a chronic condition — just like hypertension, asthma or diabetes — there are things a person will need to do every day for the rest of their lives to maintain their progress in overcoming the daily grip addiction had on their lives.
Research has shown that people who continue treatment for a drug addiction can stop using drugs and then make many positive changes in their lives, such as obtaining and maintaining employment, restoring family ties and avoiding criminal activity. When a person decides to stop treatment altogether or assumes they are "cured," they often find that they relapse. This does not mean that their previous treatment was not effective or that they are beyond help. It simply means that they need to consult with their doctor or a mental health professional to determine what treatment they need to resume or, if they were still active in a treatment program, what may need to be modified to make their ongoing treatment more effective.
When it comes to treatment for addiction to alcohol or drugs, there's no "one-size-fits-all" plan. For some people, talk therapy may be beneficial in working through the underlying issues that led a person to substance use. For other people, anti-addiction medications may also help overcome addiction, particularly in the earlier stages of treatment when withdrawal symptoms are the most prevalent. Some people become concerned at the idea of taking medication to overcome addiction to drugs, however, there are many highly effective and safe anti-addiction medications available and being used in treatment with great success.
If you're struggling with an alcohol or drug addiction, the last thing you need is someone yelling at you or calling you out in front of other people. Yes, you need people who will be honest with you. Yes, you need to be challenged and encouraged. Yes, you may have some tough days and weeks ahead. But a good treatment program is designed to walk beside you and teach you how to reclaim your life in a compassionate, non-threatening atmosphere.
It is not always easy, but these misconceptions can be overcome. What people don't realize is how unique every addiction story is. Addiction is a complicated disease, but at the root of it all, those who struggle with addiction are still human beings who wish for a new start. Here are some things you can do to start the road to recovery:
If you have a loved one who struggles with addiction:
Tackling addiction on your own can feel overwhelming. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there are resources to help. Finding a substance use treatment center is the first step toward beginning your sobriety journey. Look for a place with trained staff, comfortable amenities, privacy assurances and ethical treatments.
For compassionate help with alcohol or drug addiction, look to Diamond House Detox. We are an addiction treatment center that helps individuals overcome addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. We use evidence-based treatment options and ongoing support to help you achieve your rehabilitation goals.
Diamond House Detox has multiple treatment options to help you work through addiction:
Located in Northern California, Diamond House Detox provides a clean, safe and comfortable environment for individuals recovering from addiction. If you or a loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, we cannot stress enough the importance of finding a place for them to begin their treatment and recovery. For more information about the programs at Diamond House Detox, contact us today.
Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on October 12, 2022.