Five damaging myths about addiction

By Adi Jaffe Special to CNN - 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.

As a former methamphetamine addict myself, I know how hard it is to overcome both the addiction and, possibly even more so, the stigma that society places on us because of these myths.

In fact, in a study I'm currently conducting at the University of California Los Angeles, we're finding even more evidence that one of the top reasons addicts put off treatment is a fear of the social consequences. In a nutshell, people fear the label of "recovered addict" more than they do the hardships of going "cold turkey."

Why? Because in many cases they risk facing social humiliation and a variety of legal restrictions on driving, housing, custody of children, business licensing, as well as an extended period of mandated drug testing, many of which stem from a misunderstanding of addiction.

In my own case, I'm still required to finish three years of drug testing before I can earn a state psychology license -- in spite of the fact that I've already received a Ph.D., been drug-free for 10 years, successfully completed a drug rehab program and undergone three years of previous drug testing.

Since September is National Recovery Month, it's worth taking a closer look at the top addiction myths that hold us back from a real understanding of what addiction is, what the real dangers are and how we should manage this national problem.

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.

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