Addiction is a subject which elicits strong feelings, opinions, and responses – and, like any emotive and controversial topic, it has become a magnet for misconceptions, distortions, fabrications and outright falsehoods. This week, we cast a critical eye over a few of the most rampant myths and misunderstandings concerning addiction and recovery. Spoiler alert: the truth is usually a little more complicated!
Myth #1: Addiction results from personal weakness
This should not still need to be said – our understanding of addictions has, happily, moved on from the belief that they only afflict those lacking in self-control or moral fibre. But while we are less likely to read stigmatising headlines about depraved ‘junkies’ and shameless ‘alkies’, a look at the comments under news stories about people with substance/alcohol use show that, sadly, such views continue to circulate and cause harm.
Debate continues among scientists and experts as to the precise nature and causes of addiction, but it is agreed that what addiction is not is evidence of a weak, degenerate or corrupt character. Addiction happens to all kinds of people, none of whom opt to become addicts as a lifestyle choice. It takes hold of people gradually and insidiously, often before they are fully aware of what is happening and, by the time they are, are too tightly in its grip to easily extricate themselves. People who find themselves in this predicament need compassion, not punishment; support, not judgement. Something terrible has happened to them – they are not terrible people.
Myth #2: Relapse = failure
So: we’ve established that addiction is not a choice – why would anybody choose the suffering, stigma and shame that addiction so often brings about? But if developing substance use disorder is not something a person can control, why would we believe that relapse is? Too often, when a person relapses, there is an unspoken suspicion that they weren’t trying hard enough to maintain their recovery; they weren’t being attentive enough; they had become complacent or even arrogant regarding their achievements; they simply didn’t want it enough.
We need to challenge these notions. Heaping stigma and disgrace onto a person who undoubtedly already feels ashamed that they have returned to use – however briefly – cannot be conducive to their recovery. Fear of judgement can also encourage individuals to hide relapses from their peers, leading to social isolation which makes recovery that much harder.
The fact is that substance use disorder is a relapsing condition, and returns-to-use are pretty much par for the course, especially in the early period of recovery. The best way to approach such lapses is to reassure the individual that they have not failed, nor let anyone down, nor will be judged or shunned, and instead reassure them that slips are normal and part of the process of recovery. Rather than failures, relapses can and should be approached as opportunities for learning and growth – moments to appraise our stock of tools and strategies, see what’s missing, and find ways to strengthen our arsenal so that we’re armed and ready next time around.
Myth #3: Recovery = perpetual struggle
Just as relapse is not an irretrievable catastrophe, wiping out all your hard work and sending you back to square one, recovery need not be a life of superhuman effort and hyper-vigilance against its ever-present threat. It is true that many in recovery feel they have to make a daily, conscious effort to maintain it – but this effort need not be painful or characterised by loss or lack. Many who have emerged from the other side of problematic alcohol or substance use find their lives enriched and transformed in ways they could not have imagined, the gains more than compensating for the difficult days that everybody has – whether in recovery or not.
We should also be careful to consider those new to, or considering getting into, recovery: by over-emphasising the struggle and characterising it as incessant and lifelong, we risk putting them off or making it seem too frighteningly difficult to contemplate. But anyone who has attended a LUF event will attest to the genuine joy, hope and togetherness that can be found in recovery. That isn’t to say that the challenges don’t exist – but they are far from the whole of the story.
Myth #4: You have to hit rock bottom in order to get into recovery
Many people who have been affected by substance/alcohol misuse and are now in recovery will be able to identify a period, a sequence of events, or even a single incident, which led them to conclude that something had to change, that enough was enough – that there had to be more to life than this. Many will speak of ‘hitting rock bottom’ before coming into recovery, and some will see this as a necessary precursor to their getting well.
These stories are valid – indeed, I identify with this experience myself – but we should take care in the way we tell them lest they have consequences we did not intend. By emphasising ‘rock bottom’ as a necessary waymark on the path to recovery, we may inadvertently discourage people from seeking help sooner. We already know that many people are put off from disclosing and addressing problematic drug or alcohol use because they believe ‘it’s not really bad enough,’ or because they are able to hold down a job, or because they don’t think their problem will be taken seriously. But, like all health issues, the earlier addictive behaviours are tackled, the better the chance of a positive outcome. People should be encouraged to seek help as soon as they feel their use is having negative consequences – this way, we can stop people having to hit bottom at all, and that has to be a good thing.
Myth #5: There is one true path to recovery
It’s completely understandable that someone who has turned their life around after struggling with substance/alcohol use disorder would be eager to share their successes, and the means by which they achieved them, with others. The stories people tell about their journeys from addiction to recovery are among the most powerful resources our community has, and the reflections, observations, and encouragements freely shared in RRR support groups are often instrumental to members’ recovery (I speak from experience). But it can be so easy to cross the line from suggestion to direction; from ‘this is how I did it’ to ‘this is how I did and therefore this is how you must do it too.’ From there it’s a few short steps to ‘this is the only way to do it, and anyone who goes about their recovery in a different way, or has a different idea of recovery to mine, isn’t truly in recovery.’
The reality is that recovery is intensely personal, comes in many forms, and has multiple different meanings, goals, and outcomes. For many, lifelong abstinence from all substances is the only means to achieve it, and those who choose it should be applauded and supported to pursue this path. But that is not everybody’s recovery. For some, recovery means committing to not using illicit drugs on top of prescribed treatments such as methadone or buprenorphine (which are demonstrably effective treatments for opioid addictions and not simply ‘substituting one drug for another’). Others may abstain entirely from drugs but – having never struggled with alcohol – feel safe to have an occasional beer with a meal. For others total abstinence is not realistic or desirable, so moderating their use with a view to reducing harm may be their aim.
The point is that recovery comes in many forms, and prescribing rigid rules and parameters for others based on what worked for us can make others feel judged, and their achievements diminished. We already face enough stigma and discrimination from society at large. Let’s not allow divisions to take root in our own community, and instead accept that, while each of our journeys is unique and personal, we all ultimately want the same thing – to live a better life than the one we left behind. We are so much more likely to achieve that if, instead of doing each other down, we lift each other up instead.
What other myths and misconceptions have you encountered in your recovery? Do you have further thoughts on how to tackle prejudice and stigma? Please get in touch if you would like to add your voice to this debate – email firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact form here on our website.
By Jennie Chapman
Training and Development Lead/Blog Writer, Red Rose Recovery