“A theory that is wrong is considered preferable to admitting our ignorance.” – Elliot Vallenstein, Ph.D.
Here is a list of common misconceptions about treatment from my experience in working with addiction. I wrote this in 2014 while working as a therapist at a San Diego drug and alcohol outpatient center.
Myth #1: “I have a chemical imbalance. Talking doesn’t seem helpful.”
From my experience, this way of thinking actually hinders treatment progress. Not only is this an oversimplification of what occurs in the brain, but externalizing the problem allows for feelings of helplessness. For example, if a problem is due to deficits in one’s brain chemistry, then theoretically there is little someone can do to remedy the issue besides take a pill to increase serotonin levels. The idea of a “quick fix” is alluring for many reasons, but sadly it does not exist. Everything in our life alters our brain chemistry to some extent, including all forms of psychotherapy. While biological factors are undeniable, our environment shapes us just as much. This is good news because it means that we can learn how to change thinking and behavioral patterns, alter attachment styles, and learn how to cope more adaptively. In doing so, one gains self-confidence and a sense of mastery over their life. Thus, time-limited medication use combined with psychotherapy can be the most effective route to take.
Myth #2: “I’m ashamed I need help. I should be able to do this, but I guess I’m just weak.”
This one makes me cringe each time I hear it. Emotional strength is the opposite of what many of us have been taught. We all need help from others at times. Knowing when to reach out is courageous and shows great emotional strength. Hiding our emotions and keeping them stuffed inside can be quite damaging to our mental health as well as our interpersonal relationships. Doing this is akin to shaking a soda can and then opening it up. Eventually the emotions will leak out or burst in a way that is probably unhelpful. The more we understand this, the less we will need to concern ourselves with the stigma surrounding mental health. Hopefully the end result will be more people getting assistance with their suffering.
Myth #3 “I don’t understand why my child is using and/or sad. They have everything they could want. They have no reason to be unhappy.”
People often can appear to have all that they need (e.g., money, love, great family, etc.), but that does not mean they have no reason to struggle emotionally. For example, a son may not feel that he can live up to his parents’ success causing ambivalence and depression. Or despite how devoted a woman’s husband may be to her, she could unconsciously believe that she does not deserve to be loved as a result of previous experiences. No matter what someone seems to have, their distress is real and meaningful. From my experience, the more we acknowledge, validate, and try to understand another person’s pain, the better the prognosis for the person that needs help.
Myth #4 “My daughter has a unique situation. She is dual-diagnosed. She has horrible depression and anxiety on top of her drinking issues.”
It’s unfortunate that addiction and substance use are often seen as completely separate from other mental health concerns. Whether the addiction came before the mental health problem(s) or vice versa, they often go hand in hand. For instance, a college student may have always had underlying anxiety, but was not completely aware of what it was called. When he goes to college and tries marijuana for the first time, he may feel a sense of calm that he did not know he could feel before. With time he may be able to identify what makes marijuana enjoyable to him; it allows him to quell his anxiety. Treatment that addresses both the addiction and mental health problems seem to be the most efficient way to assist in maintaining recovery.
Myth #5: “Getting success rates of treatment facilities makes it clear which provider to go to.”
The definition of “success” may vary, depending upon who you ask. For some concerned significant others, the answer may be for their loved one to never use again. For others, it may be an improved quality of life for themselves and their loved ones. From a professional perspective, my definition of success is based on any improvement in emotional growth or reduction in substance use. Many times one of these leads to another. Change does not happen overnight and the more we acknowledge and praise the small steps, the closer individuals move toward the overall goal. That being said, it is understandable to get frustrated when seeing or experiencing slow movement. However, try to remember what it was like to learn cursive or memorize the times tables. Some people learn more quickly than others for various reasons and some need extra help. Be kind to yourself and your loved ones while they are in treatment. Without compassion there is often little to motivate continued change.