Many of us don’t understand the complexities of addiction, and that can make life harder than it already is for those who are suffering. Whether you struggle with addiction or not, it is highly likely that your life has been affected by addiction in some way. A barrier for many individuals looking to recover are the harmful stigmas society places around addiction. Getting rid of these stigmas is important to help us understand and care for each other better. Clearing up the confusion around addiction is one of the first steps we can all take to create an environment that is conducive for those looking to live a better life. Let’s talk about addiction and spread some understanding:

Defining Addiction

Addiction is a complex brain disease which alters brain chemistry and behaviours. New York Times best-selling author and pioneering therapist John Bradshaw defined addiction as “A pathological relationship with any mood-altering experience that has life changing consequences.” A notable piece of this definition is that Bradshaw does not limit his definition of addiction to substances, it is all-encompassing. Addiction can span to several different behavioural processes such as sex, gambling, or shopping. Another key piece of his definition is using the word “Pathological” which comes from the Greek word pathologikos meaning “treating of diseases.” We often look at addiction being caused by a “Perfect Storm” of factors, childhood trauma, genetic predisposition, our environment, and our family of origin to name a few.

Moral Failure vs. Medical Condition

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding addiction is perceiving it as a result of moral failure or a lack of willpower. As we talked about above, addiction is a complex medical disease rooted in alterations in brain functioning. When someone is diagnosed with cancer or a heart disease, we generally understand the need for compassion and a comprehensive treatment approach. Unfortunately, we often still see those struggling with addiction being treated as lessor than and not given the same compassion and understanding. We would never tell someone with a heart condition to manage their disease with willpower alone. They would be educated on necessary lifestyle changes required, overlooked by a team of professionals, and given appropriate medications and procedures if necessary. We don’t look at their disease being a result of moral failure or stigmatize and place judgement on them.  When we acknowledge addiction as a legitimate medical condition, we open the door to affording those struggling the same level of treatment and support.

Addiction is a Choice

Another misconception is the idea that those dealing with addiction can simply choose to stop using substances or their compulsive behaviour. While the initial decision to use might be voluntary, once someone becomes addicted this ability to stop becomes much more difficult. Changes in the brain compromise decision making abilities, impulse control, and can create a compulsive drive to continue using despite adverse consequences.

 

Consider this perspective, ask a group of youth if they have the goal and aspiration to one day struggle with addiction. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who planned to become addicted when initially engaging in substance use or their compulsive behaviour. At first using might seem almost “magical” with no immediate repercussions. With continued use this initial feeling often fades away and is replaced by negative consequences. Relationships are fractured, responsibilities are abandoned, and health deteriorates. Pain and negative emotions take hold, and the individual seeks an escape from the havoc caused. Addiction disrupts the brain’s ability to regulate and process emotions, leading the addict to perceive using as their only means of coping. This becomes a cycle that perpetuates itself.

 

During active addiction our ability to make clear choices is diminished. However, upon entering recovery the narrative shifts and power of choice emerges. In recovery, we can actively choose to take actions that pave us forward. We have the autonomy to reach out to others, to engage in support groups, and to dedicate ourselves to self-care practices.

“Rock Bottom” is a Requirement

It is a misconception that to enter recovery, we must have a “rock bottom” moment before seeking help. Our “rock bottom” is also always subjective, some may consider losing their home as their bottom, while others may feel at their bottom after missing work due to a hangover. The idea that someone needs to hit a particular low point often deters individuals from seeking help, delaying their path to recovery. The scary reality is that addiction is a deadly disease and far too many people leave this earth before they get help. Encouraging support at any phase of addiction will lead society to more positive outcomes and prevent further consequences.

The “One Size Fits All” Recovery

There is no right or wrong way to recover, recognizing that recovery paths are not a one-size-fits-all approach is important to break barriers and stigmas. What works for one person may not be effective for another. Tailored approaches that align with individual needs and circumstances are crucial for successful recovery. There are countless resources and modalities of recovery, and we encourage everyone to try as many as possible and see what works for them. In the community there are several different support groups, 12-Step, Smart Recovery and Life Ring are a few of the several organizations out there. We all have our own diverse backgrounds, preferences, and challenges, and we will give ourselves the best chance for success when we find something that resonates with us.

Addiction Only Affects Certain Demographics

Addiction doesn’t discriminate based on demographics. It affects individuals from various backgrounds, irrespective of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Acknowledging addiction as a universal challenge encourages a more inclusive approach to addressing its complexities. We hear the common cliché that an addict is someone living under a bridge with a bottle of wine. We forget that addiction affects everyone from all walks of life. This is a dangerous stigma that can prevent those from getting help out of shame or embarrassment. Understanding this helps create a more inclusive world that prioritize access to resources and compassionate care for everyone affected by addiction.

DISPELLING THE MYTHS

We all can do our part to dispel the myths and stigmas surrounding addiction. It starts with using education as a powerful tool to inform society as a whole. Sharing evidence-backed information helps counters these misconceptions and provides a platform for those in recovery to share their own experiences if they feel comfortable. By empowering individuals to speak out about their recovery, it humanizes the issue. Our collective voice can help push for changes in policies, advocating for more compassionate and effective approaches towards treating addiction. Encouraging open dialogue and education helps challenge stereotypes and paves the way for a more supportive community. We all can do our part to break down the stigmas surrounding addiction.