Addiction stereotypes often prevent those suffering with alcohol and drug addictions from getting the addiction treatment they need. Know the real faces of addiction in order to get the help you need as soon as you need it.
Alcohol and drug addiction harbours many common stereotypes that perpetuate a narrow view of what addiction is and who addicts are. Society’s acceptance of stereotypes makes it difficult for those who do not fit within them — the majority of people suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol — to get the help they need early on.
Here, we will take a look at common stereotypes vs. the reality, as well as provide insight into the real early warning signs of addiction, contrary to popular belief.
Common Addiction Stereotypes vs. Addiction Facts
Stereotypes reflect the unfair belief that all people with a particular characteristic are the same. When it comes to the use of drugs and alcohol, negative stereotypes are rampant.
Stereotypes often have a bit of truth to them which is why they stick, and therefore some addicts may fit within the stereotypes below. However, making gross generalisations that assume all addicts fit within these stereotypes is where the problem lies.
Stereotype #1: Addicts are junkies, homeless, or otherwise outcasts of society.
This is one of the most common stereotypes of addiction that is frequently perpetuated by the media. When we think of a drug addict, often the first image that comes to mind is that of a ‘junkie,’ someone who is chronically dependent on hard drugs, living on the streets, unemployed, and stealing or engaging in other criminal behaviour to feed their addiction.
Likewise, an alcoholic is often viewed as someone in a similar position: drinking cheap liquor out of a brown paper bag, spending all day in the bar, unemployable, dirty, and/or homeless.
The above is a severely detrimental stereotype that feeds society’s stigmatisation and misunderstanding of the disease of addiction. The reality is that the majority of people suffering from drug addiction and alcoholism are not chronically dependent users. They are more likely high-functioning addicts who are mothers, fathers, have success in their careers, are contributing members of the community, and from the outside — appear to have it all together.
Stereotype #2: Addiction only occurs when someone uses drugs and alcohol every day or suffers from withdrawal symptoms.
Again, this relates to the stereotypical image of a dependent drug or alcohol user who wakes up with the shakes in the morning and needs to use drugs and alcohol all day every day in order to ward off the withdrawal.
Many people who are struggling with addiction do not use every day. They may only drink heavily on the weekends, or never have their first drink of the day until after 6pm. They may be able to go several days in a row without drinking or using and think that their drug and alcohol use is therefore under control.
This stereotype also assumes that addiction only applies to substances, which is not true. People can never use drugs and alcohol and still suffer from a process addiction such as gambling, sex, or internet addictions.
Stereotype #3: Someone addicted to drugs and alcohol must “hit rock bottom” before they can change.
The idea that an addict has to have lost it all or experience other severe negative consequences before they need to get help, or are able to get help, is simply not true.
Everyone’s “rock bottom” is different. Many high-functioning addicts are able to manage their addiction in such a way that negative consequences only slowly creep into their life. They may never have contact with law enforcement or use substances to the point of losing their jobs. However, this does not mean that the overall quality of their life and relationships is not being affected by drugs and alcohol. People can benefit from treatment without having “hit rock bottom,” and can be motivated into treatment by their friends and family.
The Problem with Stereotypes
There are many faces of addiction and stereotypes provide only a limited picture of what addiction is and what addicts look like. The negative stereotypes fuel denial by allowing us to believe that only ‘other people’ are addicts.
Negative stereotypes also fuel unfair stigmatisation of addicts as a lower class of people within society. This keeps many people from seeking the help they need for fear of being labelled as an “addict” and their reputation being tainted because of it.
Stereotypes make it difficult to understand addiction as the chronic progressive disorder that it is. The early stages of addiction look very different from the chronic, late stage substance dependence we are accustomed to identifying with addiction.
Early Warning Signs of Addiction to Drugs and Alcohol
Due to society’s stereotypes people often associate addiction with a person’s quantity and frequency of drug and alcohol use. However, a more important aspect to consider is the effect that drug and alcohol use has on the individual. For example, a person may drink infrequently, but every time they drink they end up drinking more than they planned and begin to put themselves and others in danger by driving while intoxicated, or acting out in ways they normally would not. While they drink infrequently, this person may come to identify themselves as an alcoholic.
In order to get a real picture of the early signs of substance use disorders contrary to what stereotypes tell us, first it can be helpful to clearly define both substance abuse and addiction.
Substance abuse is the harmful or hazardous use of substances, usually illicit drugs and alcohol. Using prescription medications, in a way other than prescribed, is also substance abuse and can lead to harmful consequences. Any substance use that causes harm or puts you at risk for harm physically, emotionally, or otherwise is considered substance abuse and can be a warning sign for developing substance dependence or addiction.
What is addiction?
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” For about half of all cases of addiction, the disease is caused by genetic factors. Prolonged substance abuse can also cause changes in the brain which lead to developing addiction. While quantity and frequency of drug and alcohol abuse are factors, addiction is more accurately characterised by the inability to consistently abstain from these substances, preoccupation with receiving the rewards of substance use or addictive behaviours, continued use despite growing negative consequences, and an inability to recognise problems with one’s behaviour or relationships. Without treatment, addiction is progressive and can lead to disability or premature death.
Early warning signs of addiction are therefore harder to spot than stereotypes lead us to believe — a person does not necessarily have to get in trouble with the law, drink every day, or lose their job for addiction to be noticed. Also not all people will show the tell-tale physical signs of addiction, such as weight loss or gain, and poor hygiene.
Slight changes in behaviour can be some of the first warning signs that addiction is developing. This can include:
- Isolating oneself in order to hide drug or alcohol use.
- Lying about where you are, where you have been and where you are going.
- Lying to others and even yourself about how much you drank, or the amount of drugs you consumed.
- Letting responsibilities slip — such as missing appointments, events, or showing up late to work or school.
- No longer interested in old hobbies.
- Changes in daily routines to accommodate increased substance use.
- Uncharacteristic mood swings.
- Strained relationships.
- Lack of interest in any activities or social gatherings that do not include drugs and alcohol.
- Feelings of complete boredom or anxiety when not drinking or taking drugs.
These signs could also be related to other mental illnesses, but if you suspect that they are occurring as a result of drugs and alcohol, or other addictive behaviours such as gambling, then it could be time to get help. The earlier someone gets help the better their chances are of achieving long-term addiction recovery.