The stereotypical image of an addict in many people’s minds is someone who uses drugs or alcohol everyday, looks unhealthy and unkempt and lives in dodgy housing, or possibly on the streets. In fact, less than 10% of all addicts live up to that stereotype. However, due to these typecasts, many addicts stay in hiding – dealing with the disease all alone.
Who is an addict? What does an addict look like? The media fuels many stereotypes that lead us to believe we can answer these questions. Addicts are unemployed, live on the streets and uneducated. They are criminals, prostitutes, and otherwise deviant from mainstream society. They drink every day and take drugs in alleyways or abandoned buildings. They look unkempt, underweight and sickly.
The reality is the majority of addicts don’t fit within these common negative stereotypes. In fact, less than 10% of all alcoholics are the homeless, chronically using and mentally ill men portrayed in movies and media. Most people struggling with addiction have jobs, families, and may not even use every day. They are able to keep up appearances and support their habit without turning to stealing or prostitution. They are women and men of all ages, classes, and ethnicities.
Parents are encouraged to look out for signs of substance abuse such as slipping grades, strange behaviour and symptoms of depression. While it is true these red-flags exist and shouldn’t be ignored, a problem can go unnoticed if the young user is able to keep up with his or her responsibilities.
The gap between stereotypes and reality contributes to the pervasive denial characteristic of addicts and their families. As long as someone is non-violent, employed, keeps up a home and otherwise functions as a productive member of society we find it easier to overlook the possibility of addiction. Denial is a key ingredient in keeping addiction alive and it manifests in many ways over time.
With stereotypes in mind people are able to minimise their behaviour in comparison to what they think an addict really looks like and rationalise decisions based on their external successes. Friends and family are also sucked into denying their loved one has a problem based on their misconceptions about addiction. As the disease progresses, denial by the addict becomes stronger and loved ones begin to enable addictive behaviour.
The idea that an addict must hit “rock bottom” before they can change is another stereotype prevalent in society that contributes to denial. Often hitting bottom is portrayed as a dramatic event in which an addict has no choice but to face reality as he or she has lost everything. With this storyline in mind addicts and families prolong denial for years and even decades when things don’t ever completely fall apart. The truth is the internal struggle of addiction is present whether one’s life is seemingly all together, or completely out of control. “Hitting rock bottom” looks different for everyone and the outward drama that we might expect is often missing.
So what does an addict look like? An addict looks like a parent, child, co-worker, boss or friend. Asking questions early and gaining knowledge about what addiction really looks like can lead you or your loved ones to seek the help they need. As with any disease the earlier it is detected the better chance one has to overcome it.