One big misconception is that misusing drugs or alcohol is purely a personal choice, Adelphi experts say.

Part II of our four part series on addiction, by Samantha Stainburn

For an issue that’s so pervasive, misconceptions about addiction abound. One big misconception is that misusing drugs or alcohol is purely a personal choice, Adelphi experts say.

Judy Fenster, Ph.D.

Judy Fenster, Ph.D.

“The brain is very quick to remember behaviors that worked for it,” says Judy Fenster, Ph.D., an associate professor and faculty chair for curriculum and instruction at the School of Social Work. “You go to a bar, and you’re awkward, and you have a drink, it works quickly. We know why people turn to these substances. They work darn well. The problem is that they don’t work long term, and they start to cause their own problems.”

“There’s a physiological component of addiction,” says Ms. Monti. “People who are addicted, they don’t desire this life, and they are in a lot of pain. They can burn bridges, steal things, and really alienate others, but you have to remember it’s coming from a place of fear and pain.”

Another common assumption is that anything less than total abstinence is failure. “Research shows the abstinence approach works for some but not for others,” Dr. Fenster says. New models of treatment have emerged that promote a more open approach, “allowing for people who want to moderate rather than stop to talk about what they are willing to do right now to reduce the harm right away,” she says.

“As people are able to make small changes in their lives and renew relationships, if they are not 100 percent abstinent for a whole year, that’s not necessarily a failure,” says Leslie Temme ’87, M.S.W. ’89, Ph.D. ’10, an assistant professor of social work at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. “If we could make their treatment experience positive, even if they do not make it this time, at least they’ll have the sense they can come back to a place like that because it was a positive experience for them.”

A third major misconception is that family and friends can’t do anything until the substance abuser chooses to be helped. “People feel the person has to hit bottom in order to receive treatment, and as a result, they wait for the addict to come forward and want help. In fact there are many different options that can be offered prior to hitting bottom,” Dr. Freshman says.

The belief that families have little role in moving relatives toward sobriety grew out of public awareness of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program, a treatment model designed more than 80 years ago for adults with addiction problems, she says. “The idea was to ‘let go and let God,’” Dr. Freshman says. “In letting go and not enabling, the person is likely to fall apart and seek treatment. The problem with that is we’re dealing nowadays with opiate addiction. And opiate addiction is not the kind of thing you can comfortably let your 19- or 21-year-old do and hope they don’t overdose and die. You are better off trying to do interventions to get them into treatment even if they don’t want it, viewing those as opening steps until they do want it.”

This piece will appear in the Adelphi University Magazine Spring 2014 edition.

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