Many people who struggle with compulsive substance abuse or addiction have tried and failed—sometimes repeatedly—to stop using intoxicating substances. For many, part of the chronic struggle with addiction is that it’s difficult to reach out for help; doing it alone can feel virtually impossible. However, seeking help can make all the difference in the world, as professional treatment can facilitate recovery and usher in a newfound freedom in life.
However, there may be certain misconceptions or myths about treatment that can make seeking help even more difficult. Treatment is an important step to managing and overcoming an addiction, so understanding why these myths are wrong can make it easier to arrive at a decision to seek help.
- Anyone can stop taking drugs if they have the willpower.1
Though there is some choice involved when it comes to first-time use of drugs and alcohol, many people believe that continuing to use intoxicating substances is also an entirely voluntary decision for people with substance use disorders. Others believe that simply ceasing to take a drug and going through withdrawal means they have conquered their addiction. Some mistakenly believe that cravings shouldn’t be too difficult (or dangerous) for everyone to manage without help. No one expects a person to overcome other serious health issues such as asthma or diabetes through sheer willpower; people struggling with addiction have a chronic illness that requires help from medical professionals to manage.
- Detox is the same as rehabilitation.2
Detox is an important early component of recovery, and is incorporated into many rehabilitation programs, but it is not a substitute for comprehensive treatment . Ending the body’s dependence on a substance helps restore neurochemical balance and successfully managing withdrawal symptoms keeps people as safe and comfortable—allowing full focus on longer-term recovery efforts. However, the larger issue of addiction entails compulsive behaviors, emotional triggers, environmental concerns, and even genetics. Therapy through a rehabilitation program after successfully completing detoxification will help people to better learn about the underlying causes of their addiction, so they can best avoid triggers, manage cravings, and change maladaptive behaviors surrounding continued substance use.
- Rehabilitation cures addiction.3
Addiction is a chronic illness; this is no cure, though it can be effectively managed. Acute withdrawal symptoms can be managed in the short-term, followed by additional treatment for several weeks or months, and ongoing therapy and social support for years after for relapse prevention and sobriety maintenance. Cravings for an intoxicating substance can occur spontaneously, and relapse can happen even years after successfully completing a treatment program. None of this should discourage people who struggle with addiction, because addiction can be successfully managed on a long-term basis with diligent, ongoing recovery efforts.
- A person should only need to go to a rehabilitation program once.3,4
Drug addiction treatment programs are time-consuming, requiring detox, therapy, support group participation, and more. However, going through a treatment program several times doesn’t indicate that a person is not making recovery progress. As with other chronic illnesses, ongoing help may be necessary, and that includes periods of feeling better and periods of relapse. People working to manage a substance use disorder or addiction may need to undergo more intense rehabilitation or therapy at different times in their lives. A return to treatment is often a much-needed stepping-stone on the road to full recovery.
- Treatments that involve medication are just replacing one addiction with another.2,4,5
Past estimates have indicated that medications are utilized in as many as 80% of all detoxification protocols. Many people entering a treatment program need medications to help them detox safely. For people recovering from opioid addiction, this might include a scheduled tapering of buprenorphine; for people with significant alcohol dependence, this might mean low doses of benzodiazepines to decrease the risk of withdrawal complications such as agitation, seizures, and delirium. Beyond the period of medical withdrawal management, a combination of medications and behavioral therapies is backed by research to be the most successful addiction treatment approach. With opioid replacement medications for maintenance therapy, medical professionals prescribe these medications, and the individual taking them is closely monitored to mitigate the risk of additional compulsive use with the treatment medications themselves.
- A person must hit “rock bottom” before they can go into treatment.6
The term rock bottom implies different situations for different people. For some, it is surviving an overdose, while for others, it is losing relationships with loved ones, being fired from a job, losing their home, or worse. It may be more important for a person to seek help as soon as they realize they are struggling with an addiction. This could occur when a person is managing a happy family life and a successful career, when they are experiencing chronic homelessness, or when they suffer mental health issues alongside their substance abuse problems. Waiting too long to seek help can be dangerous or even deadly.
- Treatment only works for people who want it.3
While it is important for the person in a treatment program to be engaged with the process, few people enter rehabilitation programs because they want to. In some cases, family and friends stage an intervention, while in other cases, a court or doctor’s order forces the individual into a treatment program. However, people who enter treatment can benefit from the process, regardless of how much they want to be there.
- Relapse is failure.4
Relapse might be frustrating or discouraging, both for the person struggling with their addiction, and for their friends and family. However, relapse is quite common, and even likely to occur at some point (or points) during the recovery process. While rehabilitation programs work to reduce the possibility of relapse, like other chronic illnesses, there are periods where the condition may change or worsen. In some cases, a person will need to re-enter treatment or adjust their treatment plan to get back on track after a relapse. For people with diabetes, for example, poor blood sugar control may be considered a form of relapse and require going to the doctor to develop a new approach to treatment. Similarly, people in recovery from alcohol addiction might drink a beer and begin to suffer intense cravings for more. They may be unable to control their behavior and become intoxicated further. This does not mean they have failed; instead, it means they need to re-evaluate their recovery plan and, quite possibly, recommit to treatment.
- One type of addiction treatment should work for everyone.7
There are some fundamental elements or common approaches to treatment that are applicable to many people. These include a period of supervised and/or medical detox, evidence-based behavioral therapies, frequent interaction with a treatment team of qualified professionals, and relatively long (e.g., at least 3 months for the most improved outcomes) treatment durations. That said, with so many different types of abused substances and so many differences between individuals, it does not make sense for one type of treatment to work for everyone. People entering treatment have different personal histories, different triggers for cravings, and, often, polysubstance abuse histories or co-occurring mental illnesses, which may require slightly different, integrated approaches to treatment. Working with a treatment professional to develop a personal treatment plan, which may involve medication to manage withdrawal or mental health issues, and incorporate different styles of therapy, or philosophical or religious approaches to treatment, may be the most successful way to promote recovery.
- Teenagers are too young to need treatment.8
Preteens, teenagers, and young adults are groups that often experiment with different types of intoxicating substances, and for some of these individuals, the experiment becomes an addiction. Anyone at any age can struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol, and it is just as important for children and young adults to get help as it is for other age groups.
Treatment for drug addiction involves many factors: withdrawal, medication to manage medical and psychological issues, treatment of co-occurring disorders, individual and group therapy, support groups, and social support from family, friends, mentors, sponsors, and more. Recovery is a lifelong commitment.
Addiction is a chronic illness, so like other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or asthma, addiction needs consistent management and monitoring. Understanding the myths that create a barrier to treatment means that more people can successfully undergo treatment and achieve lasting recovery.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2016). Review article reinforces support for brain disease model of addiction.
- (2019). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.
- Leshner, A.I. NIDA Archives. Exploring Myths About Drug Abuse.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Media Guide—The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics.
- (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)—Is the use of medications like methadone and buprenorphine simply replacing one addiction with another?
- National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. (2013). Child Welfare Training Toolkit—Module 4: Engagement and Intervention With Parents Affected by Substance Use Disorders and Mental Health/Trauma.
- (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)—Principles of Effective Treatment.
- Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (2018). What Are the Treatment Options?