Dealing with Myths and Stigma in Recovery

Arming yourself with information about the way myths and stigmas affect addicts and how people respond to them, can go a long way in supporting people to find recovery. Effective treatment for substance use disorders requires an understanding of the myths and stigmas that accompany addiction. I’d like examine a few myths that surround addiction, and foster a misunderstanding of how to best support people to find recovery.

1. Everyone needs to reach bottom before quitting.
Early in my career I worked with adolescents. One of the clients on my caseload was a 17 year-old girl who had a long history of prostitution, a significant legal history, and a span of alcohol and drug use that began when she was five. During treatment she spent time talking about her alcohol and drug history and how that affected the decisions in her life. She had various opportunities to quit using chemicals but she reasoned that she wasn’t ready. While she came to a place where she was able to give up her chemical use, she never escaped her history of prostitution. She was able to develop a motto that supported her to quit using alcohol and drugs: your bottom is when you stop digging.

This client reinforces the notion that there is little evidence that the level of consequence a person accumulates before seeking help is related to their chances of succeeding in recovery. It is always better to get help early than to hold out for the perfect desperate moment. The idea that waiting until you hit bottom comes from the notion that you are more likely to pay attention if you experience a greater degree of pain in your life. This is simply not true.

Many times I will hear someone in recovery suggest that “only an addict or alcoholic can understand another addict or alcoholic.” I don’t think this is the case and is essentially an urban myth. When I think of addiction I think of people feeling helpless, powerless, and being held captive by their dark side. My sense is that we don’t need to be brilliant to understand the mind of an addict, just human.

2. The best way to get sober is by attending 12-step meetings.
While this was thought to be true at one time when there was a lack of resources and available treatment approaches, the reality is that one size doesn’t work for everyone. If you need support and don’t resonate with 12-step meetings don’t fret. I invite you to explore Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Rational Emotive Therapy, Stages-of-change, motivational interviewing, anti-craving meds, natural recovery, spontaneous remission, or bibliotherapy. It is important to remember that recovery looks different for everybody.

3. A proper diagnosis is important to help people recover.
Having worked with many homeless clients who come with a variety of mental health diagnosis’ I can let you know that independent of the diagnosis, clients engage in dysfunctional behavior, don’t follow through with provider appointments, or continue to use despite the consequences they continue to experience. Within the psychiatric community a diagnosis or label can be helpful to convey client experience, it can be fun to engage in psychiatric lingo, can be used for the purposes of billing, but ultimately a label or diagnosis is less than helpful. When you label someone not only do they have to overcome the affliction, they also have to overcome the label.

4. Addicts and alcoholics drink because they’re addicts.
This is a myth that tends to be rampant in the self-help and addiction communities. It ultimately suggests that people are destined not to move beyond the confines of their past. Is it addict behavior to want to use alcohol or drugs to change the way you feel or is it merely human to want to feel relief?

Arming yourself with information about the way myths and stigmas affect addicts and how people respond to them, can go a long way in supporting people to find recovery. Whatever you decide, good luck on your path.

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