5 Myths About Substance Use Disorder We Need To Debunk ASAP

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

If you live with substance use disorder, or know someone who does, you know that there are tons of myths and misconceptions about the disorder, which is technically a mental illness. "Many people believe that someone [with substance use disorder] is making the conscious choice to keep using," Dr. Lawrence Tucker, a psychologist and expert on substance use disorder, tells Bustle. "Thoughts like, 'If she loved me, she’d stop,' and 'He’s choosing the drugs over me,' prevail." And because those thoughts don't accurately reflect the reality of the situation — that a person who lives with substance use disorder is not choosing to use that substance — when a person who's dealing with substance abuse hears them, it can have a negative impact on their recovery.

Some myths about substance use disorder are easily dispelled, but others are far more insidious, not to mention entrenched in how our culture thinks about addiction. And these myths and misconceptions are seriously problematic, because they foster unhelpful belief systems and discourage people who are trying to manage their substance use from getting the help they need. If you encounter any of these misguided ideas, pause and do a reality check immediately. Here are five myths about substance use disorder we need to debunk, ASAP.

1"Substance Abuse Disorder Is Easily Cured"

Counselor and addiction specialist Patrick Di Vietri tells Bustle that getting sober when you have a substance user disorder is a serious struggle, and not just when you're detoxing or in rehab. "When someone is in sobriety," he says, "they have what is called a sober plan, their daily routine that gives them a sense of control and purpose while living a sober lifestyle." And sober plans are rigorous. A typical one, Di Vietri says, includes "activities such as daily meditation and exercise, regularly eating healthy meals and interacting with peers in the community who are positive influences on the person. The individual also has some sort of system in place regarding their mental health and support group needs." And even with that structure in place for years on end, they may relapse and begin using again — which doesn't mean that they can't get sober again. Substance use disorder is managed, not cured.

2"People With Substance Use Disorder Can Use A Little"

"The greatest myth to bust is to get people with addiction to understand they cannot use external mood or mind altering chemicals in any safe way at all," Dr. Stephen Pannel, medical director of Oxford Treatment Center in Oxford, MS, tells Bustle. "If they do, the disease process starts over again. The brain has been tricked into thinking these chemicals are the solution." That means a little of anything with the potential for abuse is off the table.

Di Vietri agrees. "Addiction is all or nothing; there is no in between," he tells Bustle. "Relapse typically happens when people think they can use their substance 'moderately'. They might think that one or two drinks won’t hurt, but then it’s one or two drinks over the course of five straight nights and then it turns into a bender."

3"It's A Moral Failure"

"Using a substance is a choice, especially at the beginning," Dr. Tucker tells Bustle. "Unless someone was drugged without their knowledge, they willingly choose to use a substance initially. This does not mean that they chose addiction and all that comes with it, however." Substance use disorder is a disease, not a choice.

"We say that addiction is a disease because drug use changes the brain and, as a result of these changes, drug use becomes compulsive, beyond the control of the user," Dave Marlon, CEO of the American Addiction Centers, tells Bustle. "This way of viewing chemically dependent people has its benefits: if addiction is a disease, then addicts are less likely to lament their past behavior and focus instead on recovery, and this ought to reduce the stigma."

And many factors influence how substance abuse disorder can begin. "Some people can use a substance multiple times without becoming addicted," says Dr. Tucker. "Others may have used a substance only once when signs of addiction were established. Genetic, environmental factors, developmental factors like upbringing, and psychological and personality factors all influence the outcome."

4"It's Easy To Spot Somebody With The Disorder"

Like any other group, people who live with substance use disorder are not a monolith. Substance use disorder can affect anyone of any background, age, gender, class, race, ethnicity, or any other characteristic. There is no "typical" profile of a person with substance use disorder.

5"There's Nothing You Can Do To Help"

This is one of the most dangerous myths around. Believing that friends and family are powerless to help, Dr. Tucker tells Bustle, "is not only incorrect, it's dangerous. It implies that loved ones and their actions do not factor into someone’s ability to get recover from addiction. Certainly, no one can force a [person with substance use disorder] to quit using, but luckily, there are many methods you can use to improve the situation."

Indeed, the science shows that your support helps. According to addiction psychiatrist Jared Heathman, managing the disorder requires "a significant amount of family and professional support to achieve and maintain remission." The data shows that being part of the solution, by encouraging treatment and supporting sobriety, can be a major asset to people with substance abuse disorder.

"Sustaining remission from drugs and alcohol is not easy," says Heathman. "Building a team of support that includes family, sober friends, support groups, counselors, and physicians can greatly increase the odds of treatment success."

Substance use disorder is a difficult disease to treat, partly because of the many stereotypes and myths around it. But debunking these myths can help people get treatment and stay healthy.