When it comes to addiction, misinformation circulating throughout our society has been durable over time because it sounds true. But it isn’t. These false beliefs affect our thinking and our actions, which leads to prolonged suffering and, if the disease is never interrupted, eventual death.

Below are the ten most common myths about addiction, followed by the facts that debunk them. Until we discard these myths, we stay stuck and ineffective when dealing with a loved one’s addiction, allowing the disease to continue to rule. By putting right thinking in place, we can see possibilities that we couldn’t before perceive.

1. Myth: An alcoholic or addict must be ready for help before he can be helped.

This is the most damaging myth. A survey conducted by Hazelden Foundation found that 70 percent of its patients sought help after a friend, family member, employer, or co-worker intervened.[1a] This myth is so important to address that we are going to explore it in detail in the next chapter.

2. Myth: You have to let the alcoholic or addict hit bottom.

When a family is told they must let their beloved alcoholic or addict hit bottom, no one tells them that they will hit bottom, too, taking even the smallest child. Many assume that an addict hits bottom and then rushes off to treatment, but this is usually not the case. The addicted person can bounce from one bottom to the next for years, sentencing the family to unhappiness and fear. Leaving someone suffering from addiction to free-fall is not a good strategy. Intervention is a far better choice. We can raise the bottom to today, avoiding future consequences. After all, some bottoms come with no bounce.

3. Myth: You’re not an alcoholic unless you’re a daily drinker, drink in the morning, or start missing work.

Patterns of alcohol or drug use can vary widely. Some alcoholics may drink every day; others may binge-drink on weekends. Some only drink after work (so they don’t look like alcoholics), and others only drink in social situations. It is not when or how much someone drinks but what happens when they drink that indicates an addiction problem. Amounts, frequency, and timing may be deceiving. Loss of control over drinking and repeated negative consequences as a result of the addiction are the tell-tale signs of addiction.

4. Myth: Illegal drugs are more dangerous to the human body than alcohol.

Although illegal drugs are quite harmful and even deadly, alcohol is destructive to every organ in the human body and all parts of the brain. Although beginning in the 1990s, research was touting the health benefits of drinking alcohol (there is some evidence that these studies were largely funded by the beverage alcohol industry), these studies went against years of evidence to the contrary. Today, some very well-conducted studies show that alcohol, even in small amounts, is not a healthy choice. The most recent of these studies, the “Global Burden of Disease” study published in The Lancet, one of the largest and most detailed studies on the health effects of alcohol, finds that even the occasional drink can be harmful. The results were so alarming that they prompted an advisory that people are better off when they abstain from alcohol use.

5. Myth: Illegal drugs are the biggest addiction problem in our country.

In the United States, about 29 million people are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. That’s the sum of the populations of Denmark, Austria, Panama, and Greece. Of that total, 15.4 people are alcoholics. The second-largest group, at 4 million, is made up of marijuana addicts. Prescription painkillers come next with 2.4 million people addicted. All other legal drugs combined (excluding marijuana) contribute to up to 7 million addicts. 

6. Myth: Addiction is the result of a lack of willpower.

Addiction is a complex disease that affects a person physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Willpower is not an effective therapy for this disease any more than it would be for cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. Addiction dismantles the will over time. Alcoholics and addicts attempt to exert their willpower over their addiction, but the results are unpredictable and temporary. In the advanced stages of the disease, willpower becomes entirely ineffective.

7. Myth: A recovering cocaine (heroin, marijuana, meth, Xanax) addict can still drink alcohol.

Alcohol is a mood-altering drug; therefore, no addicted person can use alcohol. It sets the addiction in motion again. If a cocaine addict, for example, uses alcohol, it will set off cravings that will lead back to cocaine use. If his use of alcohol continues, he eventually begins to show problems with alcohol. Many addicts have tried switching one drug for another without long- term success. This is referred to as switched addiction.

8. Myth: An alcoholic can use prescribed mood-altering drugs by following doctor’s orders.

A person in recovery from addiction should not begin using addictive, mood-altering drugs— even when prescribed by a doctor. Use of Xanax, Adderall, or other mood-altering drugs wakes up the addiction in the brain. Addicted people may need a pain medication if, for instance, they are in acute pain or having surgery, but they should use the smallest amount for the shortest length of time. Important safety measures include talking to their Twelve Step sponsor and having a family member dispense the medication. Increasingly, nonaddictive drugs are used for pain instead of narcotics. For instance, many doctors and dentists are now using Toradol (ketorolac) or a combination of ibuprofen and Tylenol Extra Strength as effective alternatives to highly addictive opiates. If pain is chronic, an addict is wise to consult with a pain management clinic that uses opiate-free methods. Opiates aren’t effective drugs for chronic pain and can fool the brain into believing there is still pain in the body when there isn’t. It’s important to understand that most doctors haven’t been educated in the mechanisms of addiction; thus, many believe recovering addicts can use mood-altering medications by following directions. They don’t understand that addiction doesn’t reside in the thinking brain (prefrontal cortex), so it can’t be controlled by agreeing to follow commonsense practices. The thinking brain is overwhelmed by the addiction. Note: mood-elevating medications, such as Prozac, are not the same as addictive, mood-altering drugs.

9. Myth: Addiction is the addict’s problem, not ours.

Addiction changes the brains and the health of family members. It’s been shown that the resulting chronic stress causes the brains of family members to stop producing new neurons. Brains become disfigured over time. Chronic stress causes premature aging and wrinkling of the skin. It impacts the organs in our bodies. People who experience ongoing stress have more health problems than average and are at greater risk for accidents. Quality of life deteriorates under the unrelenting stress of coping with a loved one’s addiction. Moreover, our communities and society are negatively affected in ways too numerous to mention. The burden of addiction costs society approximately $520 billion a year.

10. Myth: Treatment doesn’t work.

In the United States, for every dollar spent on treatment, society saves four to seven dollars. Treatment dollars produce more effective results than interdiction dollars (money spent patrolling the borders for drugs) or law enforcement dollars. In fact, it takes $246 million in law enforcement or $366 million in interdiction to get the equivalent results of $34 million in treatment.[3] The reason people believe treatment doesn’t work is largely due to a misunderstanding about what treatment does and doesn’t do. The goal of treatment is to get people well enough so they can begin working a program of recovery after leaving treatment. If the alcoholic or addict doesn’t engage in a recovery program (Alcoholics Anonymous or other similar Twelve Step programs are shown to be optimal), they have extremely high relapse rates. This cannot be blamed on treatment professionals, who create recovery plans for addicts to follow after treatment, any more than we can blame doctors when diabetics refuse to follow their wellness plans.

Myths and misconceptions originate from many sources. Please make a mental note that many health care providers—doctors, social workers, therapists, and psychiatrists—are not trained in the field of addiction treatment. Many newspapers and periodicals quote professionals who are not well versed in addiction and its treatment. A social worker told a friend of ours that her brother wouldn’t need heroin if he just lost weight and found a job he enjoyed. A book by a diet guru promises to cure alcoholism through nutrition. A doctor we know refers to alcoholism as a lifestyle choice. Some disreputable treatment centers promise a cure. There is no cure. Addiction is a chronic disease that needs to be managed with an ongoing program of recovery. Don’t grasp too quickly onto the opinions presented by people who do not have proper training in the field of addiction. If a claim seems too good to believe, quickly find a more qualified opinion. Addiction is complex, and recovery requires ongoing support designed specifically to significantly lower the probability of relapse.