Common myths about addiction

Almost everything we think we know about addiction is wrong. These myths hurt families and friends – and they make it harder for people to get well.

Myth: You can't help or change someone with an addiction.

Reality: There are actually many things you can do to have a positive impact on the person you care about. You can learn to change interactions with your loved one. You can practice self-care so you’re in a better place to help others. You can develop positive communication and reinforcement strategies and learn problem-solving skills.

All these actions have been proven to motivate a person at risk to accept help. People with addiction have often become very disconnected from healthy activities and relationships. Helping them reconnect to these vital aspects of a healthy life can be pivotal in their wellness journey. These strategies almost always make you feel better, too! Our peer coaches help teach concerned loved ones how to positively impact their unwell loved one while avoiding detachment and confrontation.

While we’re firm believers in the power that comes with education and setting boundaries, we never want loved ones to feel shame or as if it’s their sole responsibility to get someone well. Not everyone will choose to get help – despite our best efforts. Loved ones often feel burdened by stigma and what-ifs. We’re here for you, just as we’re here for those struggling with alcohol or other drugs.


Myth: Using alcohol or other drugs is a choice, so if someone gets addicted, it’s their fault.

Reality: No one would choose to become addicted, any more than they'd choose to get cancer. Addiction is a consequence of many contributing factors, including genetics, upbringing, trauma and other influences.

Myth: If someone just uses willpower, they should be able to stop.

Reality: Alcohol and other drugs can lead to profound changes in the brain. These changes alter the natural “reward pathway” of the brain. In nature, rewards usually only come with effort and after a delay. But addictive substances shortcut this process and flood the brain with chemicals that signal pleasure. (We love this explanation of what happens in a brain on drugs.)

When addiction takes hold, these changes in the brain erode a person’s self-control and ability to make good decisions, while sending highly intense impulses to take drugs. These are the same circuits linked to survival, driving powerful urges no different from those driving the need to eat or drink water. 

These overwhelming impulses help explain the compulsive and often irrational behavior around addiction. People will keep using even when terrible things happen. 


Myth: You must apply “tough love” if you want people with addiction to change.

Reality: Tough love can lead your unwell loved one to feel rejected, unworthy and hopeless. Compassionate, kind approaches are more effective. They usually feel better, too. 

Tough love tactics like cutting people off or kicking them out usually have the opposite result families are hoping for. At Face It TOGETHER, we frequently receive calls from distressed parents. They’ve been told over and over to cut their child off, kick them out, detach. Some of them cry in relief when they hear there’s another way.

Ultimately, love and support are what encourage change, not punishment and rejection.


Myth: If someone has a stable job and family life, they can’t be suffering from addiction.

Reality: Many people live in denial because they’re successful in their professional lives, or because they don’t drink until after 5 p.m. or because they come from a “good” home. The reality is that anyone can be vulnerable to addiction. Many people hide the severity of their use or don’t get help because of stigma and shame. If drinking or using drugs is causing any kind of conflict or problem in your personal or professional life, it’s worth seeking support.


Myth: If I try to be supportive of someone with an addiction, I’m basically enabling their bad behavior.

Reality: In most cases, the fear of enabling does much more harm than good. It’s more useful to think about behaviors that are healthy or unhealthy. Words like “enabling” and “codependent” come with a lot of baggage. They tend to paralyze people who are already struggling to help their loved one through challenges related to addiction. There’s nothing wrong with loving, caring for and wanting the best for the person in your life who’s struggling.


Myth: People have to hit “rock bottom” before they can get well.

Reality: This simply isn’t true. It’s also dangerous. There can be deadly consequences to waiting. People who seek help early in the process have more resources to draw upon, such as a supportive family or a job. The sooner someone gets help, the better.


Myth: Going to treatment will fix the problem.

Reality: Treatment can be the first step toward wellness, but it’s often just the very beginning. Many people need more than one treatment visit to get on a stable path to wellness. Staying well requires a long-term commitment to new coping skills and seeking the necessary support.


Myth: If someone relapses, they’re a lost cause.

Reality: Try not to be too discouraged by a relapse, which is a recurrence of symptoms. Addiction is a chronic illness very similar to type II diabetes or hypertension, meaning it requires lifelong management. Relapse is no more likely with addiction than it is for these other chronic illnesses.

Getting well involves changing deeply embedded behaviors. This takes time and effort and sometimes results in setbacks. This doesn’t mean previous treatments failed, because the person with addiction still made progress overall in getting well. A recurrence may be a sign that the treatment approach or other supports need to change, or that other treatment methods are needed. 

There is hope. Keep in mind that most people with addiction who experience a recurrence will return to recovery.


Myth: Addiction is treated behaviorally so it must be a behavioral problem, not a disease.

Reality: Human behavior begins in the brain. Advanced brain studies show that different types of treatments, such as psychotherapy and medication, can change brain function. This is true for depression and other illnesses, including addiction. Sometimes behavioral treatments, like counseling, are enough. Sometimes medication may be required as well. But the fact that behavioral treatments can be effective does not mean addiction isn’t a real illness. 


Myth: Prescription drugs are not addictive like street drugs because they come from a doctor.

Reality: Addiction to prescription medications, including painkillers, sedatives and stimulants, is a serious and growing problem among all age groups. These drugs can be highly addictive and have serious harmful effects. Even if these drugs are prescribed by your physician, they may pose a risk.


Myth: I’m worried I may be codependent. 

Reality: There’s good news here. You can't become codependent because codependency is a myth. It's another example of how concerned loved ones have been fundamentally misunderstood for a long time.  

Simply put, codependency is an unscientific theory that gained attention in the 1980s and unfortunately still dominates our society’s beliefs about families impacted by addiction. Loved ones sometimes develop unhelpful and unhealthy behaviors, but the idea that they have a codependency disorder is unscientific and harmful. It’s just another way society blames people who are only trying to help get someone well. 


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Sources: NIDA, Prescription drug abuse research update;; Myths of Addiction, Carlton K. Erickson, PhD, American Psychiatric Association; Clean, by David Sheff