Stories People Tell Themselves (and Their Children) About Addiction
People’s reality about drugs and addiction is determined largely by their perceptions. That is, they behave in keeping with their own ideas about drugs’ effects (e.g., opioids are addictive), about their own natures (i.e., whether they’re addicts), and about how addiction operates (people can never recover; people who have been addicted can never use a certain drug, or all psychoactive substance, normally or non-addictively), rather than based on epidemiological or clinical data, or even their own behavior.
These stories are critical for how children learn about and experience their ultimate drug and alcohol use — which nearly all will engage in.
Opioids are addictive, and if I take them over a period of time I’ll become addicted.
The idea that opioids are addictive, and that anyone, even after only a short course of the drug, can be addicted is constantly marketed as a cultural meme in the U.S. and elsewhere. For example, a ubiquitous American media campaign tells people they can be addicted to an opioid after just five days of use.
And, yet, national data and studies following those prescribed opioids in
medical practice show that a minuscule proportion (about one percent) of those who take opioid painkillers develop any problems, let alone become addicted.
I begin my presentations by asking my audiences (sometimes several hundred people) whether they have taken an opioid. Everyone has of course. I then ask if they became addicted. Almost never does anyone raise their hands. When I ask them to reflect on what this means, they are often flummoxed. Sometimes they say, “I quit because my pain went away.” Plumbing deeper, they often say they quit their pain prescriptions early because the drug interfered with their daily functioning. This was best expressed by a student at Leeds University who said, “I had things to do.”
But sometimes people “argue” with me (particularly those with former drug or alcohol problems). They seem to be saying, “I would have been addicted but something stopped me.” Like the woman who said, “My kids found the pills I had stashed and threw them away.” “And what did you do then?” I asked. “Nothing. I didn’t want my kids to disapprove of me.”
In other words, she didn’t become addicted to painkillers, even though she welcomed their effects, because she refused to disrupt her family.
Opioids don’t addict people. If you have a reasonably balanced and rewarding life (family, work, enjoyment), you won’t be addicted to opioids you receive.
Once people become addicted, they can’t quit on their own.
I go on to then ask my audience (often addiction and related professionals) what the hardest addiction to quit is. They shout out in unison, “Smoking, tobacco.” “Oh,” I say, “Has anyone here quit a smoking addiction?” Many raise their hands. “Did you use any kind of medication to assist you?” Again, no more than a handful raise their hands; and often no one does.
I continue, “What does this tell you?” Obviously, people like them can — and do — quit addictions on their own.
Many in the audience, including those “in recovery,” object that smoking isn’t really addictive like drugs and alcohol. In fact, the largest study on lifetime drug use found smoking is the longest addiction to linger, compared with drugs and alcohol. Ultimately, 80-90 percent and above of people quit drug and alcohol dependencies. Most do so without treatment.
When I ask people why they finally quit smoking, they say they often struggled for years, but that their life circumstances and motivations — health, children, self-respect — caused them to persist until they succeeded.
Like any other detrimental habit, you can quit a drug addiction or alcoholism with continued effort.
Once people are addicted, they can never use their drug of choice (or any other psychoactive substance) again.
It is rare indeed today for a person, even a recovered person, to avoid all exposure to psychoactive substances. This is especially true when you consider the range of psychiatric medications we commonly use, including antidepressants, stimulants (to treat ADHD), and painkillers. But people ensconced in stable lives rarely relapse due to this exposure, even when their recovery philosophy tells them that they should.
Thus I sometimes get into debates like the following:
Recovering person: “Since I’m a recovering alcoholic, I can’t take anything addictive.”
“You mean if you go to the hospital you’d refuse a painkiller?”
“No, of course not. But I would never go out on the street to buy drugs.”
“I know that your family and work life are very different now from when you drank alcoholically. You also socialize with entirely different kinds of people than you used to. Could you drink socially now?”
“Never! I might drink moderately a time or two. But then I’d jump right back into drinking uncontrollably.”
“Even now that you have a good life with your wife and kids?”
In fact, research shows that people’s beliefs about whether they suffer from a “disease” of alcoholism is the most critical determinant of whether they can drink normally and whether they relapse. The same national research I referred to before shows that the majority of people who have been dependent on alcohol ultimately resume non-dependent drinking.
You don’t have to drink if you don’t want to or you fear tempting a return to a former alcoholic life. But be aware, whether or not you want to challenge the fable that you can never escape addiction, the changes that you have experienced have changed your likelihood of being an alcoholic or addict.
Since I have addicted (alcoholic) relatives, I am genetically programmed to be addicted, and always will be. Variation: Since I’ve had trauma, I’ll always be an addict.
There is a cost to believing that you are somehow essentially an alcoholic or addict, either born or bred. One of these reasons we will confront is the impact that such an idea can have on your children (see next story).
And, so, people often explain their addiction/alcoholism by referring to alcoholic relations of theirs.
Recovering alcoholic: “I’m an alcoholic since I inherited it from my mother and grandfather.”
“What happened to your mother?”
“She still drinks too much, although she may not be as bad as she once was. My grandfather quit altogether.”
“How about your brother and sister?”
“My brother used to drink like me, but he cut back when he married, then had children, although he still drinks. My sister was always a light, take-it-or-leave-it drinker.”
“Gee, your family is all over the map in their drinking. On top of that, they seem capable of shifting their behavior.”
Even those who propose that alcoholism has a large heritable component are forced to concede that most people don’t inherit a parent’s alcoholism (although they are at greater risk of developing a drinking problem). There is no single gene that you inherit, or even a broad coalition of genes, that determines if you become alcoholic.
Likewise, even the research that shows that risk for alcoholism grows with the number of traumatic events a child endured finds that most children with serious negative childhood experiences don’t become alcoholics or addicts. And, of course, nearly half of us have had some adverse childhood event to deal with.
Lastly, keep in mind — per story two — most people outgrow their addictions.
There is no straightforward relationship between alcoholism and genetic inheritance or childhood trauma. Thinking it is so doesn’t change the research. But such beliefs can load you down with harmful expectations and can actually be adverse experiences in themselves.
I have told my children they are also genetic addicts/alcoholics, and that they must never drink or take drugs.
Addressing recovering person: “What would you tell your children about your former alcoholism?”
“I’d do what my mother did. She only talked to me about it once, when I was 12, before I drank or even thought about drinking.”
“What did she say?”
“She told me that there were a lot of alcoholics in our family, and that I stood a good chance of becoming one.”
“And that warning was it? She never talked to you about how to avoid that legacy?”
“That was it.”
I avoided saying the obvious: “How did that work out for you?”
There is no simple dictate you can give a child, like: “Don’t drink or you’ll be an alcoholic.” This is most likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, the best way to prevent and avoid addiction is to encourage a child to be mindful about themselves, their health, and their drinking as part of your ongoing parent-child communication.
LPP coach Zach Rhoads and I show in our new book, Outgrowing Addiction: With Common Sense Instead of ‘Disease’ Therapy, the best guarantees against addiction are that a child value themselves, become part of a community, and develop a purpose. Addiction grows out of ongoing difficulties young people experience in life. But no one escapes some problems. And the best protection against such difficulties prompting an addiction is your child’s values, independence, and belief in themselves.
In the end, everyone — including, especially, young people — must learn to be masters of their own universe.In the meantime, please don’t persist in myths about addiction that your own life should cause you to question. Accepting as ironclad truth beliefs that are, at best, half true while they hold out the chance of actually being harmful is a disservice to yourself and your children.