When you hear the word “addiction,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the tragic stories you see in the news about someone who has died from an opioid overdose. Or you might think of someone who has lost their job, their house, and relationships because of a drinking problem.
What you may not know is that addictions are more common than these extreme examples might have you believe. About 21.5 million American adults struggled with a substance use disorder in 2014, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and about 80% of those cases were related to alcohol. Drug and alcohol addictions aren’t just isolated occurrences.
Even though substance abuse is so prevalent, there are many misconceptions about drug and alcohol use, addiction, and treatment. If you think that you or someone you know might be struggling with an addition, it’s important to correct these misconceptions so that healing is possible.
More than willpower
Many misunderstandings surrounding addictions are simply taken as fact by many people. For example, some believe that those struggling with addictions are weak and lack willpower, but this simply isn’t true. In fact, research has shown that addictive substances actually change the way your brain responds to their use, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Drugs and alcohol affect the “reward circuit” in your brain, so the brain requires greater and greater amounts of the same substance to achieve the same effect. This “rewiring” creates a dependence on the substance and contributes to addiction. In turn, this makes avoiding the substance increasingly difficult because your brain’s ability to make decisions and manage your behavior is impaired.
Research has also found genetic and environmental components to addiction. For example, research from the Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics journal found that addiction is inherited about 50 percent of the time. This means that there is a genetic component to addictions, and it can run in families. Additionally, almost twice as many men than women struggled with alcohol use disorder in 2013, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
The way that addictive substances change the brain, along with the genetic and environmental factors that play a role in drug use, means that addiction is much more than a matter of willpower. As the addiction grows, it becomes harder and harder for the person to resist using the substance because of the changes in brain chemistry. And when an addicted person tries to stop using a substance, it can cause withdrawal symptoms. Someone struggling with an addiction is far from lazy — instead, they are trapped in a vicious cycle that is incredibly difficult to get out of.
When it becomes a problem
The most abused drug in America is alcohol, according to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD). And you might be surprised to hear how much a person needs to drink for it to be considered alcohol abuse.
For example, in my work as a psychotherapist, many of my clients describe their “normal” drinking habits to me. They tell me that they go out with their friends a few nights a week and have a “few” drinks, which often means anywhere from 3 or more drinks per night. What they are often describing to me sounds a lot like binge drinking, which can put someone at a greater risk for substance abuse. But because of the misconceptions around alcohol use versus abuse, they believe their drinking is normal.
The trouble is, what you are served at the bar isn’t the same as what’s considered a “standard drink” by the NIAAA. For example, a standard beer is considered to be 12 ounces with 5 percent alcohol content. But, a lot of IPAs and craft beers have a higher alcohol content in 12 ounces. A standard amount of wine is a 5-ounce pour but your glass could contain much more depending on how generous your bartender is. And finally, a standard shot is defined as 1.5 ounces with 40 percent alcohol content. But with mixed drinks and especially with something like a Long Island Iced Tea, you are likely drinking more than what’s considered a standard drink.
So while you think you may be having “a few drinks,” you may be actually consuming enough to be considered binge drinking. Binge drinking is considered to be four or more drinks in a two-hour period for women, and five or more drinks in a two-hour period for men.
As mentioned earlier, addition might call to mind someone who is drunkenly stumbling out of a bar or the sunken face of someone struggling with an opioid addiction, but it has many faces. Some people, despite their addiction, are able to mask their behavior enough to maintain their jobs and relationships without anyone knowing or suspecting.
The CAGE acronym is often used by healthcare professionals as a quick screening to see if someone is struggling with alcohol or substance abuse.
“C” stands for “cut back”: have you ever thought that you should cut back on your drinking?
“A” stands for “annoyed”: have you ever felt annoyed that people have criticized you for your drinking?
“G” stands for “guilty”: have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
“E” stands for “eye-opener”: have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to get rid of a hangover or to calm your nerves?
If an individual answers yes to just one of the questions, it may indicate a drinking problem.
Simply knowing the differences between the facts and the myths of addiction can go a long way in helping someone recognize they may be struggling with addiction and encouraging them to seek help. It can really make a difference in someone’s life!