Do drugs really “fry” your brain? Once an addict, always an addict? Is there such a thing as an “addiction gene”? The subject of addiction is plagued by myths and misinformation that were created to scare our children away from drugs. But these haven’t succeeded, and have actually made it harder for addicts to seek treatment and to return to a normal life
Myth No. 1: There is an addiction gene
There is no single gene, or set of genes, that determines whether or not a person will become an addict. And even if a person’s parents are addicts, it doesn’t mean they will be too. Current addiction research shows that roughly 50% of addiction tendencies are attributable to genes.
That’s a high percentage, but it still leaves half of the equation up to the environment and personal experiences. The addiction gene myth lulls many people into a false sense of confidence about their own drug use while paradoxically also discouraging many addicts from seeking treatment.
Myth No. 2: Marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’
The addiction rate for marijuana is lower than that of alcohol, and there is little scientific evidence that it acts as a trigger for harder drugs.
While teen marijuana use is not to be encouraged, the real “gateway drug” risk might be from abusing prescription opioids and stimulants, like OxyContin, Vicodin and Adderall, or with inhalant drug use. These have strong addictive properties and more accessible to teens.
A 2010 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that among 12th graders, 8% abused Vicodin and 5.1% abused OxyContin. Inhalant use peaks in the 8th grade at around 17%, far earlier than all other drugs.
Myth No. 3: Addiction is for life
This simply isn’t true, and it places a huge emotional and psychological burden on recovered addicts. Addiction is a spectrum disorder, like depression, and every person is different.
While there are plenty of cases where addicts struggle for years to overcome a drug addiction, many more cases reveal the opposite — short-term users who manage to put the past behind them and lead normal and productive lives. According to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, 75% of alcoholics recover without treatment.
Myth No. 4: Drugs ‘fry’ your brain
Remember the 1987 anti-drug commercial that used a frying egg to show “your brain on drugs?” While drug abuse can be bad for the brain, it is a gross oversimplification to say that drug use generally causes permanent and severe brain damage.
This myth gives the impression that recovered addicts are “damaged goods” and sets the stage for discrimination by employers, health care providers and the legal system. That said, certain drugs are neurotoxic: methamphetamine, MDMA, cocaine and inhalants are a few examples. However, even with these types of drugs, the side effects, while undesirable, by no means produce a “damaged” person.
Myth No. 5: You have to hit ‘rock bottom’
Here’s why this is dangerous: If we wait until a person “bottoms out,” it could be too late to help them.
Every person has a different “bottom.” For some, it could be getting arrested or becoming homeless. For many, it’s much less dramatic — losing an important personal relationship, being confronted by family or doing poorly at work or school.
There is little evidence that the level of consequences a person accumulates before seeking help is related to their chances of succeeding in recovery. It’s better to get help early than to hold out for the perfect desperate moment.
What other myths do you think exist about drug addiction? Leave your answer in the comments section below.