Substance Use: Clarifying Common Misconceptions

Being a therapist who worked in an addictions facility and then moved to a private practice, it was a bit of a shock to see both how many people not seeking treatment for substance use are still impacted by substance use in their own or their loved one’s lives, as well as the misunderstandings of what certain substances do. I can essentially guarantee that either the person reading this blog or someone they know uses or has used two or more substances that fall into the drug category in their life. This is an assumption I feel confident making even if we do not count caffeine in this category, even though technically it is a drug. So, for the purposes of this blog I will be referring to this specific list of substances: Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine, Amphetamines/Methamphetamines, Heroin/Opiates, and Hallucinogens (LSD, DMT, etc.). If you have a lot of experience in using any of these substances, you likely know many of the things that will be covered here already. Those who are not familiar with the effects of these substances, what they are “used for”, and which substances are most common, will benefit from reading on to understand better what those who may struggle with substance abuse are feeling when using these substances.

A small disclaimer before embarking on countering some misconceptions about substances and substance use: This blog is not intended to be used as a guide to treat any addiction. Addiction is an extremely challenging issue to address and requires in-person therapy as well as medical supervision to fully be treated and no simple blog can substitute for real-world discussion of this problem. This blog is merely a tool for those not in the world of addiction or substance abuse to understand more about some substances and their impacts on those who use them.

Alcohol and Marijuana: The “not so bad” ones?

We are entering a world where marijuana will soon be as available and socially accepted as alcohol. The political and historical aspects of these two substances are far too lengthy to address here but suffice to say that both of these are the substances the vast majority of us have interacted with, as users or as being part of someone’s life who uses them. The two biggest misconceptions of these substances that I often hear are: they are the drugs that aren’t as bad as the others, or that they are universally bad for a person.

Taking the first misconception that they “aren’t as bad” as other drugs, it is important to understand that no substance in and of itself is bad. There is nothing evil or good about a chemical concoction that happens to alter our mental state. That being said, these substances are not immune to being a major catalyst to a person or entire family’s downfall. Alcohol has been a culprit in many people’s tragic stories, but what people forget is it often is the only substance of guilt in these scenarios. Not everyone who has problems with alcohol is also an illicit drug user. Alcohol, even when used in moderation 99% of the time, can create horrible consequences for a person. Marijuana as well is not a bystander in stories of tragedy. I have seen many people in the world of addiction who were using marijuana in such ways and in such quantities, that they would sacrifice their own well-being to avoid having to face the world without its effects on them. If a person is dependent on a substance to be able to eat, sleep, or function properly, the substance is in control, and it is a maladaptive part of their lives and needs to be addressed.

The second misconception with alcohol and marijuana is that they are simply bad for you and there is no need for anyone to be using them. There needs to be a clarification in the word “need” when referring to any substance or behavior. Outside of nutrients, water, and breathable air, you don’t need anything to live. So it is not a clear stance to say no one needs alcohol or marijuana anymore than if someone were to say no one needs clothes, friends, pets, phones, etc. Do you need alcohol and marijuana to live a good life? Of course not, however there are a huge majority of the population who use these substances and suffer few if any negative impacts as well as experiencing some enhancements in pleasure. I remember often having conversations with addicts about these substances and it boiling down to the question of, “Do you need it to get through the day, week, month, year?” Only each individual can know the true answer to this, but if a person can confidently say no to that question, marijuana and alcohol are able to be integrated into a functional, healthy, and happy life. It is a misconception to say that these substances are universally bad for everyone, and it should always be looked at in a case-by-case view.

The Uppers- Amphetamines and Cocaine, “People who do these are crazy!”

The major misconception I have encountered in people discussing those in their lives who use stimulant drugs like amphetamines, methamphetamine, and cocaine is that anyone in their right mind would never use these drugs. In fairness, when looking at the impacts these substances have to the body and mind, it is easy to see where this misconception stems. A person who uses these drugs often is out of control and visibly agitated to a point that mimics what many people see as insanity. The truth is quite more complex, however. Stimulants are often used by people who have struggled to find sources of positivity and pleasure in their lives. I have encountered many stimulant users who are using them escape their constant low mood caused by trauma, abuse, or even clinical depression. This artificial pleasure made by the substances is not a true solution to these problems, but it is not a sign of weak or damaged mind that someone turns to them to try to lift themselves out of constant despair. There is also no clinical evidence that people who have or continue to struggle with abuse of stimulants are insane by any modern measure of mental health. They are often the least supported addicts and shunned by family and friends out of fear. If you ever encounter someone struggling with substance use of stimulants, try to put aside the often shocking presentation they can exhibit and realize they are struggling in the same ways a person using alcohol, pain killers, or other drugs are.

The Downers- Opiates, Mistakes that can lead to problems

The opiate epidemic media coverage has led to an increase in awareness of these substances and how they impact millions of people. For a quick refresher, opiates are painkillers like oxycodone as well as illicit drugs like heroin or fentanyl. The biggest misconception about these substances is that people believe that problems with these drugs only occur in rare circumstances. It is true that heroin and fentanyl are likely not going to be in a person’s life unless they seek it out, but prescription painkillers are just as addicting and need to be closely monitored in those who do need them. There are many conditions that legitimately call for short-term and long-term use of opiates, and it is not fair to say people should avoid them at all costs. However, the misconception that legally prescribed opiates used only as directed are harmless can have major consequences. Anyone who knows someone on these pills needs to understand that they are on a mood altering and sedative substance, so they may seem mentally taxed and slower in movement than expected. This is not a sign of abuse or addiction, but instead the normal effects of these drugs. Do not look at people who use prescription opiates as doing anything wrong, but also do not expect them to be able to be 100% functioning at all times as the impacts of these drugs are very intense. Unfortunately, we have yet to identify treatments that are superior for severe pain that have less intense side effects, but hopefully in the future opiates will be far less used.

If you are looking to learn more about substances and their impacts on people, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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