11 things people don’t understand about those who have an addiction

Addiction is one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized issues in society. Even with more awareness and scientific progress, many wrong ideas about addiction persist, often leading to judgment and isolation. Whether it's not understanding what addiction really is or what causes it, these misunderstandings can keep harmful stereotypes alive and block those in need from receiving helpful support. 

In this article, we will discuss 11 things many people don’t understand about those who have an addiction, aiming to create more empathetic and informed views. 

Ancient Romans referred to an "addictus" as a "debt slave," illustrating how enslaving addiction can be to one's brain chemistry. It should be noted an "addictus" would be released once a debt was repaid, offering hope when applied to substance use.
Many with a substance use disorder don't realize others can tell they are using.

People under the influence might believe they are functioning well or even better than usual. They may even believe they are enhanced versions of themselves while they're under the influence of substances. For example, a mother might truly believe she is excelling as a caregiver, going so far as to think she's a "super mom", despite the obvious impacts her addiction is having on her child's life. This delusion makes it incredibly challenging to recognize the harm addiction causes and contributes to denial when confronted.

Bad behaviors don’t always go away when someone stops using substances.

A common myth is that all negative behaviors disappear once someone stops using drugs or alcohol. Many think that using the substance was the only cause of their problems. For example, a child might believe their relationship with a parent will instantly get better once the parent stops drinking. This notion can overlook some of the deep-seated issues and behavioral patterns that persist beyond addiction. It is important to recognize that recovery is an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and support.

They have to want to quit for themselves.

Recovery requires a genuine internal desire to change. External pressures and incentives do not result in long term, sustainable recovery. Some loved ones may try to offer tough love or ultimatums to persuade their loved one to quit using substances. However, success is not likely until the individual expresses a genuine, personal commitment to recover. It is extremely important to understand that this internal motivation is the key to offering meaningful support. 

An addicted brain has been rewired to prioritize the substances over everything else.

It's crucial to understand that addiction fundamentally alters the brain's chemistry and structure. Someone with an addiction has changed how their brain experiences pleasure, including enjoying things that many would consider healthy, everyday activities. The individual's reward system is hijacked, making the substance the primary source of pleasure and satisfaction. Recovery can be a long and challenging process, since it can take a while for the brain to heal and create new pathways. Ancient Romans referred to an "addictus" as a "debt slave," illustrating how enslaving addiction can be to one's brain chemistry. It should be noted an "addictus" would be released once a debt was repaid, offering hope when applied to substance use.

Addiction might start as a choice, but transitions into a disease.

Many people have the misconception that addiction is a choice, implying that people with an addiction can stop using at will. To start, no one sets out to become addicted. Instead, addiction typically occurs gradually and this slippery slope is marked by initial experimentation, followed by increasing dependence on the substance. Viewing addiction as a choice fundamentally mischaracterizes the true nature of addiction. Medical research has proven that addiction alters brain function and structure, impeding an individual's capability to make conscious decisions about their substance use. Like other chronic diseases such as diabetes or hypertension, addiction involves cycles of relapse and remission. Recovery requires long-term management and support, which can include medical treatment and psychosocial interventions. Understanding that addiction is a disease is critical for reducing stigma and providing effective care for those affected.

The number of "ordinary" people addicted to drugs far outweighs the number of people stereotyped as "junkies".

The stereotype of addiction often paints a picture of a "junkie," someone visibly struggling and unable to maintain a normal life. However, the reality is that many people battling addiction appear to live ordinary and functional lives. For example, someone may be dependent on over-the-counter painkillers for decades, yet manage to maintain jobs, families, and even run businesses. This hidden side of addiction shows how important it is to recognize and address substance dependence across all walks of life. 

Drugs or alcohol come first.

For individuals struggling with addiction, substances often take precedence over everything else in their lives, even their children. This can result in severe neglect and suffering for the children of those with a substance use disorder. For example, a dependent parent's schedule can revolve entirely around obtaining their next dose, leading to panicked behaviors if access to their substance is delayed. Understanding how individuals think about substance use, will help you understand their motivations and behaviors.

It is always on their mind.

Individuals struggling with addiction often wish for sobriety, promising themselves each time is the last. Many face shame, anxiety, and even despair, but knowing they can use a substance again to numb the pain or reduce their anxiety leads to an unrelenting loop of highs and lows. Conversely, many in early sobriety experience an overwhelming sense of numbness. This often leads them to a tireless search for any feeling, even if it's through negative emotions like anxiety, loneliness, or resentment. It often requires  a concerted effort to experience positive emotions. This stage of recovery is characterized by emotional exhaustion as the individual's brain continues to heal and rewire itself. Community support and understanding that patience is crucial can help one navigate these challenges.

Many suffering from addiction fear withdrawals and find it easier to stay addicted.

Some say the first 4 days of withdrawal are often described as the hardest and most terrifying. The fear of symptoms like physical pain, anxiety, weakness, and mental distress, can keep many people trapped in their addiction, as they feel unprepared and overwhelmed by the prospect of going through withdrawal. Those who have undergone the process emphasize the importance of seeking medical supervision and support during detox, as trying to face it alone can be extremely dangerous and daunting. Detox centers provide necessary medical care and psychological support, which significantly increases the chances of a successful recovery.

Lies are a pervasive and painful part of dealing with an addict.

One sad truth is common among addicts are the lies. Addicts will lie not only lie to those around them, but also to themselves. This deceit can be heartbreaking and infuriating, making it incredibly difficult to support them. All the trust built in relationships can be shattered, with family bonds broken and friendships blown apart. For example, friends can be deceived for years, learning only later that what they believed to be genuine cries for help were manipulative attempts to support the addiction. Confronting these lies often feels like arguing with a wall, but through therapy or cultivating an environment of ongoing support, forgiveness, and patience, coupled with agreed consequences, and reinforced transparency, long-term recovery is possible.

Addiction is often a symptom of underlying pain.

Many turn to substances as a means to escape deep emotional or physical anguish. This self-medicating approach helps numb the pain or distract from the issues people face. However, this cycle only worsens over time, as the need to avoid pain becomes more pressing. For example, people who suffer from untreated trauma or chronic pain may find that addiction provides temporary relief, but eventually leads to more suffering once the effects of the substance wear off. It's important to understand that punishing someone for their dependency can exacerbate their suffering, rather than helping them find a path to recovery. Offering compassionate support and addressing the root causes of their pain is crucial in helping them heal.

Understanding addiction means looking past stereotypes. It affects people from all backgrounds and is often hidden, driven by deep pain and emotions. Overcoming it is tough, with fears of withdrawal, cravings, and the challenge of regaining trust. We need to approach it with care, knowing it's a daily struggle. Offering support that tackles both the addiction and its roots can help. Through community support, medical intervention, and empathy, we can give hope to those battling addiction.

If you know someone or have a loved one struggling with addiction, Pathroot offers support and resources that can help. Start free today ».