There are many reasons why addiction is so misunderstood. Societal conditioning, negative representation in the media, a lack of scientific understanding, and the legal system have all contributed to the prevalence of misconceptions surrounding addiction.
In the last several decades, great strides have been made in the study and treatment of addiction. However, while this is steadily trickling down to the average person, progress is still hampered by the reasons listed above. Those dealing with addiction often still experience frequent ostracism, stigmatization, and unfair treatment.
Rather than a choice, addiction is typically a response to trauma and adverse life experiences. It is not simply a moral failing, but a complex combination of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors. By dispelling the misconceptions of addiction, we can aid a shift towards a more compassionate, evidence-based understanding; one that leads to better prevention, treatment, and support for those affected.
Six common misconceptions about addiction
1. Addiction is a choice
“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says my ambition is to become a drug addict and break the law. When you think about it, it’s a response to pain.”Dr. Gabor Maté
Perhaps the most harmful of all addiction myths is that it is a choice. Not only does this oversimplify its multifaceted nature and root causes, but perpetuates harmful stigmas.
If you or someone you know is addicted to a substance or behavior, it could be for innumerable reasons: seeking relief from pain, coping with stress, or escaping life’s challenges. Over time, repeated use can cause physiological changes in the brain—what starts as a voluntary action rapidly evolves into a deeply ingrained compulsion.
Viewing addiction in terms of choice makes recovery even more challenging for those afflicted. By labeling it as a mere matter of willpower, all the responsibility is placed on them. This lack of empathy—borne from ignorance of the contributory factors—can cause people to feel shame, guilt, and inadequacy. Raising awareness is vital for changing conditioned reactivity into mindful understanding.
When we view addiction as a complex illness—one beyond the sufferer’s means to heal on their own—we’re better able to replace judgment with the care and support they need.
2. You can quit at any time
Believing that sheer determination can conquer addiction is a common misconception, including among those with an addiction. While it’s commendable to assert, “I can stop whenever I choose” or “This is my last time using,” these statements are often a way of deceiving themselves.
In many cases, addiction has deep physical and emotional roots that require expert intervention. Comprehensive treatment—spanning medical care, therapeutic techniques, and mindfulness practices—is usually necessary to enable a person to begin their recovery journey and regain a balanced life.
But it won’t happen unless they overcome denial and confront the fact they actually have a problem and need help.
This isn’t always easy, but reaching out to trusted friends and family can be a monumental step. That way they can lay out a plan to receive proper support and begin developing healthier coping strategies.
Addiction centers like Maui Recovery can enable a person to address the challenges that previously led to their addiction, and help them build a solid foundation for a sustainable recovery journey.
3. Those with families or careers can’t be addicted
There is a prevalent stereotype that those with addiction issues are always homeless or on the verge of destitution. This is wildly inaccurate. In actuality, many are gainfully employed, responsible fathers and mothers, or seem like upstanding citizens. The ability to conceal their addiction is what often results in them being labeled as “high-functioning.”
Data shows that this type of addiction is more common than most people realize:
- Research from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) identified roughly 19.5% of all alcoholics as “functional.”
- Data from The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that 68.9% of the approximately 22.4 million adult illicit drug users are engaged in full-time or part-time work.
- A survey by the National Safety Council (NSC) revealed that opioid use has affected the workplaces of 75% of employers.
While these people might seem to lead “ordinary” lives—often thriving in demanding roles and being part of happy family units—closer investigation often unveils telltale signs of addiction, which may include:
- Unpredictable absences or tardiness at work or family events
- Decreased job performance or inconsistency in delivering responsibilities
- Physical signs like bloodshot eyes, weight changes, or a noticeable decline in personal grooming and appearance
- Financial difficulties or unexplained expenses, often related to purchasing substances
- Withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, or depression when not using the substance
- Secrecy or dishonesty about whereabouts and activities
Recognizing these signs is crucial, as early intervention can lead to better outcomes in managing and overcoming addiction. If you witness signs like these in a loved one, it’s essential to approach them with compassion, understanding, and support rather than judgment or confrontation.
4. The disease model of addiction is the most viable
Most of the world’s medical institutions define addiction as a disease. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) refers to it as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.
However, not all experts agree with this, with psychiatrist and assistant professor Tim Holden pointing out:
“The study on the neurobiology of addiction (…) looked at the brains of people with addiction after they had damaged them by their behaviour — brains were not examined in their premorbid state. This is analogous to saying that the sequelae of a traumatic brain injury were themselves the cause of said brain injury.”
So is this just quibbling over semantics? Not entirely. The disease model is undeniably useful in some treatment contexts, but it doesn’t capture the full complexity of addiction. What’s more, simply calling addiction a disease is an oversimplification that could hinder recovery for some.
Dr. Gabor Maté, renowned for his work on addiction and trauma, posits that addiction is not a disease, but arises from deep-seated emotional pain, past traumas, and societal factors. He views it as more than just a biological ailment but as a complex interplay of emotional and environmental influences.
Similarly, neuroscientist Professor Marc Lewis suggests that addiction can be understood as a form of “deep learning.” In this view, the brain changes associated with addiction are not so different from those seen in other intense, goal-directed activities.
These insights don’t dismiss the disease model outright, but highlight the importance of a more holistic understanding.
Ultimately, by labeling addiction strictly as a disease, we may end up limiting the approaches used in treatment, potentially sidelining valuable therapeutic avenues that address underlying traumas, societal stressors, and psychological factors.
At Maui Recovery, we don’t place limiting frameworks on our clients, as doing so doesn’t serve their unique recovery needs. By using a more holistic approach we can facilitate more comprehensive and effective treatment strategies.
5. Prescription drugs aren’t as harmful as illegal drugs
Many hold the misconception that prescription drugs (due to their medical approval) are inherently safer than street drugs. The opioid epidemic has shown this to be patently untrue. After all, prescription medications are still drugs, and history has shown they can be as addictive and harmful as illegal substances.
Misuse, such as exceeding the recommended dose or combining them with other drugs or alcohol, can amplify risks. What’s more, there’s a growing issue with counterfeit prescription drugs, with some being laced with lethal substances like fentanyl.
To highlight the gravity of the situation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documented nearly 17,000 deaths tied to prescription opioid overdose in 2021. This is why you must always be vigilant, and do your research, even when medication is prescribed by a healthcare professional.
6. Relapse equals failure
You may be familiar with that sinking feeling when you or a loved one experiences a relapse. It’s easy to see it as a setback, or worse, a sign that you’ve let yourself or others down. The fact is, relapse is a common aspect of the recovery journey. Remember, you’re far from alone.
According to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 40–60% of people who’ve undergone addiction treatment have faced relapse at some stage.
Factors like intense cravings, mental health challenges, or bumping into old triggers can easily knock you off balance. The important thing is that you view relapse not as a complete derailment, but as a signal. It’s your body and mind hinting that you might need some additional support or to revisit treatment options. Keep moving forward. After all, every step (even the backward ones) is part of your unique recovery journey.
How Maui Recovery can help
At Maui Recovery, we’re dedicated to dispelling the common misconceptions surrounding addiction. We recognize that substance use disorders or addictive behaviors aren’t simply an isolated issue, which is why we employ a holistic approach.
Along with providing highly personalized treatment plans, we strive to educate and raise awareness about the realities of addiction. Every client we assist leaves our center empowered with resilience, self-awareness, and new tools for sustainable recovery.
If you’d like to talk to us about our approach to treatment, or how we can help you or a loved one, please contact us. We’re here for you and ready to help.