Fear of the unknown: it’s not exclusive for those with addiction or mental health issues. Its reach extends beyond our clients, touching families, communities, and society as a whole. As we all try and make sense of what we don’t know, assumptions morph into accepted truths and those truths can be sticky.
It’s no surprise that when it comes to addiction, there is a huge discrepancy between wide acceptance of gossipy assumptions and what addiction actually is.
On my own journey, I’ve reflected on what I used to think about addiction and what I know now, and I know that I’m no exception – I made assumptions, too.
Now, as a woman in long-term recovery, and a drug and alcohol counselor, I have a well-rounded and educated perspective on addiction.
Here are some beliefs I used to hold about addiction:
- Addiction is a choice: For almost a century, the predominant view of addiction has been that it is a self-induced condition resulting from a character disorder, moral failing, or lack of willingness.
Addiction is a brain disease that creates a need for substance use. Due to neuroplasticity, when an individual engages in drug use, the brain creates a neural pathway for development and support of that habit of drug use. Further drug use strengthens that pathway. The brain is trained to continue that behavior.
In the same way neuroplasticity accounts for the development of a disorder, it also helps recovery. In recovery from substance use disorders, neuroplasticity is defined as the brain’s attempt to heal itself from damage, such as addiction, by creating new neural pathways and connections.
Substances can also change the brain on a chemical level – effecting neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin. In addition to the biological dimensions of addiction, there are certainly environmental and social aspects of the disease that exist, as well. So, the disease is deeper than drugs. It is a biopsychosocial disorder that requires psychological, behavioral therapy and sometimes, medication.
- Addiction only affects lower socioeconomics: It’s unfortunate that it had to start impacting suburbia before society actually paid attention to addiction, but with the frivolous opioid prescriptions came a sea of overdoses in higher socioeconomic strata. With that came the understanding that addiction transcends class, race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomics.
Seventy-eight people die every day in the United States from an opioid overdose – more than 20 million Americans have a substance use disorder and only ten percent receive any type of treatment. It truly is a public health crisis.
- Weed is not addictive: Abuse of and dependence on weed, aka marijuana or cannabis, is an actual thing – many of my clients have been diagnosed with cannabis use disorder.
Cannabis is a psychoactive substance that alters mood, consciousness, cognition, and attention. The reason people say, “weed isn’t addictive,” is because they associate addiction with withdrawal symptoms of opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol.
Actually, tolerance can develop and without the drug, withdrawal symptoms like intense anxiety and physiological responses associated with panic can appear. Depression or change in mood can occur and there is the possibility of an extreme episode where the user can become psychotic. Tolerance, withdrawal, and negative social and behavioral outcomes are all identifying factors of addiction. Weed is addictive.
- I can’t overdose if I don’t use opiates/opioids: Dangerously untrue is this assumption. Buying street drugs is a gamble. Even if your drug of choice isn’t opioid/opiates, you’re still at risk of using an adulterated substance. “Cutting,” “lacing,” and “stomping on” are all names for the process of adding chemicals to a drug.
Fentanyl is commonly added to not only other opiates/opioids, but also cannabis, K2, cocaine, and even pills, which can be formed with “pill pressers” to resemble actual prescription medication. Fentanyl is also incredibly potent – many more times than heroin and morphine. It’s very easy and not uncommon to unknowingly overdose on Fentanyl. The addition of Fentanyl as dramatically increased overdose fatalities in recent years.
- I am all alone in my addiction: You are not alone! During active addiction, I felt alone – that no one understood, and I had to stay silent for fear of the stigma. The disease of addiction is the disease of isolation and for me, isolation was the most dangerous situation I could be in. With seven years clean, it still is. However, there is hope. The promise is hope. We are a beacon of this hope.
As a young woman who has been who has been part of the recovery community for years, I’ve noticed a positive shift in the public understanding of addiction. This shift has reduced stigma, and those that need help are asking for it. It has also allowed growing networks of recovery community organizations (RCOs) to publicize vocal and visible messages.
Unfortunately, the misconceptions of addiction are many and can’t all be named in a blog. Better awareness is critical to the future of recovery. It is evident that past approaches to addiction have been rooted in misconceptions and prejudice and have resulted in a lack of preventive care and poor access to treatment and recovery support services. In order to make a change in addiction and recovery, a new perspective is required. We must become teachable. Further, we must remain teachable. There is a saying in the recovery community: what grows in the dark will die in the light. A change in perspective about addiction is the solution we need, and it is more than obvious than ever that the time for change is now.
By: Jenna Deluca