Understanding addiction: 7 things you need to know

We're working to help remove the stigma of addiction by shedding light on 7 facts about addiction you need to know.

Addiction is one of the most misunderstood conditions around, and one that everyone seems to have an opinion on.

There’s also sadly still a stigma surrounding addiction, but we are hoping to improve people’s understanding by shedding light on 7 things you need to know.

#1. There’s a lot more to addiction than ‘substances’

A lot of people think the word ‘addiction’ only applies to drugs, alcohol or smoking. But the truth is, you can develop an addiction to all sorts of things: exercise, sex, food, gambling, shopping, work, online gaming, behavioural patterns, the list goes on and on.

Addiction is a need to do, take, or use something, to the point where it could be harmful and you’re not in control.

It doesn’t really matter what the person is addicted to, be it alcohol, cigarettes, or prescription drugs. To the person, the effect is what counts, not the substance.

It’s true that some substances can be more addictive than others, and some are more dangerous than others, but any addiction can cause physical, mental and social damage. It really just depends on the individual; but whatever the case, an addiction should always be taken seriously.

#2. Addiction isn’t something you choose

Frustratingly there are lots of common misconceptions around this one.

Often people wonder why people with addiction don’t just stop. They’re not weak-willed nor inherently bad – addiction is a chronic, debilitating and potentially fatal disease which has long been recognised by the WHO (World Health Organisation).

While using a substance or behaving in a certain way may start out voluntarily, with addiction it doesn’t stay that way.

Once someone has an addiction, they’re certainly no longer making a choice – it has become compulsive. People lose control, no matter the negative consequences – loss of friends, family, jobs, and housing as well as negative physical and mental health effects.

Another factor to keep in mind is dependency. Sometimes your body becomes used to a substance (such as a drug), and you can become physically reliant, making it a whole lot harder to just quit. In fact with drug use, drugs actually change the brain to foster compulsive drug abuse.

#3. People with addiction come from all walks of life

Some people think that those with addiction must look a certain way, but the truth is, any stereotypes that people may have in their minds are just not true.

Sometimes they may discover that a friend, family member or neighbour with a stable career and family, has an addiction to alcohol or drugs. And they’re shocked. But addiction can affect anyone – you don’t need to have lived through a rough past, be a certain race or gender, or have a particular lifestyle.

So next time you’re shocked to find out someone has an addiction, remember that there are no simple generalisations that can be made, and like any condition, anyone can develop addiction.

#4. No one factor means someone will develop an addiction

No one factor can predict if a person will develop an addiction, or predict how many times it will take before they become addicted.

Many factors can contribute including early trauma, family’s beliefs and attitudes, stress, use of substances early in life, and peer pressure.

Once someone has started a certain behaviour or using a substance, the development of this into an addiction can see genetics start to play more of a role in combination with environmental factors. While some people can have a casual drink or play the pokies from time to time, others will find it turns into a destructive habit.

#5. People with a disability are more likely to have an addiction

It has been found that people with a disability such as depression, PTSD, intellectual disability, spinal cord injury, or ADHD are more likely to have an addiction.

Sadly, often services for disability and substance abuse don’t overlap; meaning they’re treated by different people at different facilities. So professionals in one field aren’t knowledgeable about the issues in the other field. This can make diagnosis and treatment more difficult.

Although research has shown that people with a dual diagnosis (disability and addiction) respond well to integrated treatment, this type of treatment is uncommon and difficult to access.

The good news is, the number of workers trained in dual diagnosis treatment is slowly increasing so we hope to see these overlapping services rolled out more widely.

#6. You don’t need to hit ‘rock bottom’ to recover

Have you heard ‘you have to hit rock bottom before you can climb back up’ before? This just isn’t true (what does ‘rock bottom’ even mean?)

The reality is, everyone has a different lowest point: for some it may mean calling in sick to work, while for others it can mean being in jail. The issue with spreading the ‘rock bottom’ message is it leaves people feeling like they can’t ask for help because things haven’t gotten ‘serious’ enough yet.

In reality, it’s always better to ask for help sooner rather than later.

#7. Relapse doesn’t equal failure

Addiction is a long-term condition that can include periods of recovery as well as relapse.
With many conditions, the possibility of relapse is always present. Addiction is no exception.

Sometimes relapse can be seen as a sign that your approach and treatment needs to be adjusted or new supports added, but viewing it as a failure can actually be detrimental – leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety.

Just like the condition itself, the recovery plan should also be long-term and most people find the most successful treatments are programs that are created for the long haul, with support available whenever it’s needed.

Where to get support

If you or someone close to you is having trouble with addiction, there are services that can help. We’ve included a few below. You can also consult your doctor, physician, or an addiction specialist about possible treatment options too.

Counselling Online lets you communicate online with a professional counsellor about any alcohol or drug related concern, and it’s available 24hrs a day.

Gambling Help Online is a 24hr counselling and referral service for people concerned about their own, or someone else’s, gambling.

Family Drug Support is for families and friends of people who use drugs or alcohol.

Kids Help Line is available 24 hours a day to children and young people aged 5–25.

Lifeline is a 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention service.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – 12 step self help groups where all attendees are fellow alcoholics or addicts

Al-Anon and Nar-Anon – sister groups of AA and NA for family and friends whose lives are affected by the addiction of a loved one

If you need to talk to someone about mental illness or a crisis in your life, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.