Last updated: September 25, 2023
Stereotypes are like convenient thought-bites–they contain just enough truth to make you feel you don’t have to examine them too closely. Even smart people can swallow the stereotypes about addicts because the truly outlandish and obvious cases are the ones people can point to most often, thanks in large part to today’s media, which includes television, web videos, and every form of social networking imaginable. Unfortunately, and tragically, those stereotypes being perpetuated are dangerous generalizations and harboring stereotypes about addiction helps no one.
So, ask yourself what you “know” about addicts. A quick list of the common myths might be:
- Heroine addicts appear malnourished and dirty.
- Crystal meth users tend toward jittery, unfocused, and gaunt.
- Pot addicts are lethargic and unreliable.
- Alcoholics need a drink as soon as they get up.
- Addicts use because they hate themselves.
- Addicts tend to be uneducated and immature.
- Addicts don’t care about family or friends.
- Addicts are lazy deadbeats, who either job hop, or can’t hold a job at all.
- Every addict hits rock bottom.
Did your mental check include a version of the above? In that case, the truth about addicts may shock you. Did you know, for example, that, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, only 9% of alcoholics fit popular stereotypes? Even more disturbing, did you know most addicts are actually successful professionals—high-functioning individuals like executives, surgeons, and bank presidents, for example—or diligent, dedicated caretakers (teachers, mothers, child care providers)?
Some of the reasons they became addicted may be just as surprising:
- Power. High-functioning, successful addicts may have gotten started on their drug of choice because it made them feel mentally sharp, giving them the edge on the competition or in the operating room.
- Stress. Those same individuals may have started their habits to relieve the stress associated with those same careers.
- Boredom. Addicts often start out as risk takers with an appetite for instant gratification, or people who are simply bored and in search of new experiences. People who then find themselves constantly chasing a new and higher high.
In many cases, we’re talking about people who make healthy choices in other areas of their lives, people who are sociable, able to maintain a deceptively normal facade, and continue to perform on the job. They meet all their family obligations. Because they don’t look like the stereotypical addict, their illness goes unnoticed, remaining hidden from themselves as well as their families for years and years, maybe even indefinitely. They remain untreated, potentially until it’s too late.
There’s no question that some addicts fit the stereotypes associated with their substance of choice, but like judging a book by the cover leads to missing good books or reading bad ones, it’s a terrible idea to count on the outward appearance to indicate inner problems.
Since you can’t help someone unless you know they need it, here are a few true ways you may recognize addicts:
- losing interest in hobbies or socializing with friends
- trouble sleeping
- unable to focus
- taking more risks
- mood swings
- withdrawing from family
Fortunately, addicts can recover from their illness, and, as you might expect, recovery starts with an improved understanding of the person as a separate entity from the substance abuse.
For starters, how do they view themselves? Just as many people mistake stereotypes about addicts, that very addict may not have admitted to themselves that they have a problem because they don’t fit the stereotype.
Are they boastful about their substance use? A heavy drinker may brag about how much they drink, but they don’t brag about the problems that come with it. Most alcoholics go to great lengths to hide their use. That sense of social shame of identifying as an addict works directly against the idea of getting help from the people who help the most.
Also, don’t let television reality shows fool you into thinking an intervention is always the best option. For some, it may be the last straw and the only thing that can serve as a wake up call, but at that point, it’s only step one of a well-thought plan. An intervention by itself and at the wrong time can come across as a threat instead of an act of love and concern. Not having a plan and just holding a “romanticized” intervention can push away and isolate the very person you’re trying to help.
Generally speaking, addicts recover when the people around them help create a healthier environment, one rich in the personal connections so critical to the healing process. When addicts can be sure friends and family aren’t ashamed or disappointed in them, but are solidly on their side, they can be open and honest about their struggles. They gain confidence, believing members of their circle won’t judge or give up on them if they slip. They have somewhere to go to get the encouragement and emotional support they need and that’s most likely to happen when preconceived notions and stereotypes about addicts are left out.