Addiction and addiction treatment are two areas of health care where—despite knowledge advances occurring almost daily—people often get stuck in the old ways of thinking.
People like us parents of addicted young adults. We tend to hold fast to our myths, despite ample evidence that they’re just that: myths.
The worst part of this tendency? It leaves us feeling more anxious, helpless, and pessimistic about our children than we need to. And our “mythful” thinking doesn’t help them, either.
As the father of a fabulous son with three years of sobriety under his belt after 10 years of active addiction, I had to sort through, and get beyond, a lot of myths myself.
Below I list eight common ones. For each, I offer a fact check—plus some advice. I hope it’s useful.
MYTH #1: I caused it. (Sometimes stated as “It must be my fault.”)
FACT: We don’t cause our children to become addicted. We can give our kids their good looks, their sense of humor, their passion for travel, and their love of Mexican food. But we don’t give them their addiction.
That said, there is sometimes a genetic component to addiction. Here’s how that works, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
The risk of developing drug and alcohol problems is higher in children whose parents abuse alcohol or drugs—but it is not a guarantee.
Most children of parents who abuse alcohol or drugs do not develop alcoholism or addiction themselves, so your genes do not write your [child’s] destiny to become addicted.
When we have an addicted child, we look for reasons, we look for answers, and, inevitably, because we’re parents, we look at ourselves as possible culprits. Did we do something to cause it? Short answer: Very likely, no.
ADVICE: Try to move on from that self-blaming mindset. In the end, it’s not helpful, and it doesn’t do anything for you or your child. Better to stay strong and positive, support your child as best you can, and look after yourself every step of the way.
MYTH #2: He can stop using anytime. He just chooses not to.
FACT: Addiction doesn’t work like that. When people become addicted because of chronic drug or alcohol use, their brain structure and chemistry actually change. At that point, simple choice doesn’t accurately describe what your child is dealing with.
Structural and chemical changes mainly happen in the brain’s reward center. The result is that the addicted person starts thinking his survival depends on getting drugs or alcohol, rather than food, sleep, companionship, and so on. Other parts of the brain become altered as well, which impairs judgment.
I’m not an addiction scientist so I’ll stop with the brain talk, but my point here is, eventually you lose some if not all of your capacity to make a clear-headed choice to stop using. When you’re addicted, quitting becomes difficult because it runs counter to what your brain is telling you to do.
Which is why quitting often requires professional support, behavioral therapy, and medication to make it stick. That said, it can be done, and people do it every day.
ADVICE: Try to be reasonable in your expectations for your addicted child, and in his or her ability to get sober. Choosing to quit is rarely simple or easy. But it is possible. And even then it’s just the start, though a very, very important start.
MYTH #3: I can control my child’s addictive behavior.
FACT: As they say about addiction in NA and AA family group meetings—and no you can’t hear this too often—you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. The trusty three Cs.
If you’re like me, the need to control is the hardest of the three Cs to let go of. It took me years to completely get my head around the fact that I couldn’t control my son’s addictive behavior. Every day I kept trying—with no luck. I still struggle with this on occasion, a decade-plus in!
What you can control are your own actions, emotions, and sense of equilibrium. If you can do that while also letting go of the fallacy that you can control your child’s addiction, things will get a lot easier for you.
ADVICE: Aim to support your child, not control your child.
MYTH #4: It really feels like my addicted child is not a good person anymore.
FACT: Addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer. It doesn’t take moral character into account when it takes over your life.
Some of the nicest, kindest, hardest working, most honest and strong-willed people in the world get badly addicted, and struggle with it for years. And guess what? Lots of really bad apples out there never get addicted!
Addicted people don’t lack character, they simply have a brain disease called substance use disorder. This illness has exactly zero to do with a person’s innate goodness or moral fiber.
Next time you get that niggling, awful thought that your child is addicted to drugs or alcohol because he is bad, morally weak, or lacks willpower, remember this: No legitimate addiction expert in the world would agree with you on that. Not one.
ADVICE: When things are going badly, hold fast to those memories of the wonderful child you raised. That great kid who showed what he was made of before drugs and alcohol hijacked his brain. He’s still there, and you’re going to see him again one day.
MYTH #5: Because she’s an addict, she may never be successful in life.
FACT: Employer data shows that compared to people with no history of addiction, people in recovery from addiction tend to be more dependable, productive employees.
They take fewer sick days, they show up to work more consistently, and they have lower health care costs. They also tend to be more loyal, as they change jobs less frequently.
It’s true, being in active addiction for long periods can do great damage to a person’s schooling or job. But once you’re in recovery, that damage can be reversed thanks to a better-than-average work ethic.
ADVICE: Don’t give up hope on your child’s future! Things can look mighty bleak when addiction has a stranglehold, but that’s never the end of the story. Keep the faith that your child will turn things around and live a long, productive, fulfilling life.
MYTH #6: My child has to hit rock bottom before seeking treatment.
FACT: It’s true, many people do seek treatment when they hit rock bottom. But many seek it without hitting rock bottom. You never know what’s going to trigger the decision to try and get better.
In the case of my son, I felt like he hit several rock bottoms. At times, I didn’t think things could get any rockier or bottomier!
When he finally found recovery, it wasn’t by way of a rock bottom moment. As they say in AA and NA, it was more a case of him being sick and tired of being sick and tired. He’d just had it with the mess, and finally realized…enough. Something has to change, and it needs to happen now.
And it did. He just celebrated his 3-year anniversary of being sober, and we are so proud of him.
How about this: Maybe there’s a sweet spot to aim for regarding your child’s hoped-for recovery. On the one hand, you want to stay hopeful that it’s going to happen. And yes, it can happen anytime, no rock bottom moment required.
On the other hand, you don’t want to obsess over when that moment will come by thinking this is the time. No, this is the time. And so on. Putting high expectations on it is going to drive you crazy. Dashed hopes on top of dashed hopes—that really gets old.
ADVICE: So maybe that’s the sweet spot, the middle ground: High hopes with managed expectations. Seems reasonable, right?
MYTH #7: My child has to want treatment for it to be successful.
FACT: Very few people want treatment. What they want is to get sober and get their life back. Treatment is what they do to get there.
A couple of the times our son went into treatment, it was really his only option. He didn’t want to go, it’s just that his options were worse.
Bottom line was, he knew he was in a bad spot, he needed something major to change, and part of him (not all of him!) knew he couldn’t do that on his own.
So, treatment it was. Did he sign on with a gung-ho, can-do attitude? Heck no. But the most recent time he agreed to get help, it worked. That happens a lot, by the way. Statistics show that a person’s motivation level on entering treatment doesn’t correlate with recovery success rate.
ADVICE: Amazing turnarounds can happen in treatment, so try not to be too disheartened or pessimistic if your child literally starts it kicking and screaming. If we waited for our young adult children to want treatment, we’d wait forever.
MYTH #8: Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is cheating because it’s just substituting one drug for another. Complete abstinence is always the goal.
FACT: Drugs taken as part of a MAT program are therapeutic medications, not substitutions. When used in combination with behavior therapy and other interventions, medications such as suboxone, naltrexone, and acamprosate allow people to get back to normal life.
A recent report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse puts it this way: “Patients stabilized on these [MAT] medications can engage more readily in counseling and other behavioral interventions essential to recovery.”
Also: “Maintenance [drug] treatments save lives—they help to stabilize individuals, allowing treatment of their medical, psychological, and other problems.”
In my own research on MAT (my son uses it successfully), I’ve found that many of those who think it’s cheating and that complete abstinence is the end-all are addicted people themselves and their family members. Like they’re maintaining some sort of purity standard. Which is unfortunate, because doctors, therapists, and researchers in the addiction treatment field are becoming unanimous in their support of MAT. More and more people in recovery are as well, because they’re getting results.
ADVICE: Keep an open mind about where the addiction science is taking us, and be ready to support your child if he or she is prescribed MAT. It’s evidence-based, it works, and it isn’t cheating.