Let’s get one thing out of the way: If you’re unable to adjust your position or opinion on substance use disorder when you get new, compelling information about it, stop reading now. We don’t have the luxury of time to attempt to convince people hell-bent on holding their ground, even if they’re on the wrong hill.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the big myths of recovery and substance use that are and will continue to prevent us from making meaningful progress in addressing America’s biggest public health crisis in recent history.

A person’s worth is defined by their substance use and what they did while they were sick:

Many of us have done things we regret. One could argue the majority of humanity has moments in their past they wish they could erase. The difference between those of us who use drugs/are in recovery and the rest of the folks on earth is that many of the latter don’t require acknowledgement of a mental health condition and the wreckage caused in order to heal. People in or seeking recovery deserve a chance to thrive and if you don’t believe that, stop reading this and go back to what you were doing.

True recovery is complete abstinence from any and all mind-altering substances:

The truth, however uncomfortable it may make some of us feel, is that our personal recovery journeys are just that, OUR personal recovery journey. We all have the Constitutional right to say whatever we’d like for the most part. The recovery community is free to attempt to narrowly define recovery as we see it. The question we should be asking ourselves is “how many people are lost because they’ve been convinced by others in recovery that their inability to adhere to abstinence, despite their specific circumstances, indicates a lack of commitment to getting better?” It’s game time. Hundreds of us die every day. If you practice abstinence, that’s amazing and we’re really stoked for your recovery, but someone who’s recovery journey doesn’t include abstinence is no less worthy of support, resources and our admiration. 

You have to hit rock bottom to truly be ready for recovery:

This one’s simple. The definition of rock bottom is subjective. One of our “rock bottoms” may be a felony arrest, while another’s may be an argument with a spouse. Negative consequences, big or small, are usually the primary indicator we have a problem with substance use. A person’s life doesn’t need to completely fall apart before they can utilize proper supports, care and encouragement to get healthier.  

The best way to enter and sustain recovery is through “established” pathways like 12-step groups alone:

There’s no ignoring the facts; 12-Step recovery is a big deal. It works and works well for millions across the globe. A conflict has emerged as a result of public perception about recovery. Often, when recovery is referenced in popular media, it’s a group of people participating in a 12-Step fellowship. That means when the public thinks of recovery, they think of those fellowships. When they have a loved one, friend, or coworker experiencing substance use disorders they instantly think of those as the only pathways to recovery that actually work because they’re the only ones they’ve ever heard of. Make no mistake, 12-Step programs are extremely effective for a lot of people, but those for whom these programs aren’t effective should know about and have access to the many alternatives. For starters, check out Refuge Recovery, Women for Sobriety, SMART Recovery, LifeRing, Medication Assisted Recovery, and working with a personal therapist [you can check out an excellent piece on “Natural Recovery” by the one and only, William White here].

Substance use disorder is a choice:

Mark Lewis Ph.D. writes in Psychology Today, “What’s wrong is that the “choice” model ignores the brain. Big mistake! From a bird’s eye view, the reason people choose the immediate reward is that dopamine highlights immediate possibilities. That’s its function, and has been throughout evolutionary time. Research shows that dopamine rises proportionally as the goal gets closer and closer at hand, driving motivation with it. Now, if that’s the case for marshmallows and other normal rewards, imagine how powerful the dopamine surge is in response to addictive substances or acts! That swelling wave of dopamine, announcing the availability of a supremely attractive reward, thoroughly recasts the balance between present and future appeal. To choose future gain, over immediate reward or relief, becomes incredibly difficult when every synapse in the striatum and frontal cortex is resonating to the “neural now”. Especially once ego fatigue sets in. So, yes, the addictive act is a choice. Each and every time. That means that there is always the possibility of saying No. Yet, saying No is incredibly difficult, and that’s a problem the “choice” camp can’t solve…”

We’re spinning our wheels until we can address these myths as a recovery community. How can we convince the rest of America how to address this crisis if we can’t even agree on the points that define it?

Get involved. Get loud when it’s necessary. Listen to others whose experience differs from yours. Believe in yourself and believe in your fellow American. That’s what it will take, and we need you. 

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