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Misconceptions vs. Realities Regarding People in Recovery

Employers may be reluctant to hire people in recovery because they have preconceived notions that doing so will adversely affect their business; however, research indicates otherwise. In fact, hiring individuals in recovery actually presents a fairly low risk. Often, employers’ reservations stem from a lack of understanding about the nature of addiction, treatment and recovery.

Employers also may fear that a recovering employee who relapses will create catastrophic workplace problems, such as stealing or damaging property, behaving inappropriately or causing accidents that jeopardize safety. Although relapse is always a possibility in the chronic disorder of addiction, it is not an absolute. Countless thousands remain "clean and sober” after treatment, and, even if a relapse occurs, it does not necessarily result in problems on the job. In fact, individuals committed to recovery have strategies and resources for averting serious consequences and quickly getting back on track. A closer examination of the misconceptions and realities regarding people in recovery reveals that a history of substance abuse need not be a hiring deterrent.

Misconception: Addiction to alcohol and other drugs is a voluntary behavior and a character flaw.

Reality: No one chooses addiction, nor is it a character flaw. Since most people can use alcohol or drugs without becoming addicted, some may believe that it is simply a matter of choice. But for some, use is biologically destined to spiral into addiction. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict who will become addicted and who will not. For those predisposed to addiction, continued use of addictive substances over time alters the brain in ways that result in uncontrollable drug use. Continued use, despite the consequences it brings to individuals and their families, is evidence of the power of addiction. At this point, an individual is no longer in control of his or her life—drugs are in control.

Misconception: Alcoholics and drug addicts are morally deficient and lack willpower.

Reality: Addiction to alcohol and other drugs has nothing to do with morals or willpower. Rather, it is a bio-psycho-social disease that alters how the brain and body function. Individuals become dependent and cannot stop using substances without suffering withdrawal symptoms. The struggle with addiction is characterized by repeated failures to control use, an increase in the number and severity of problems caused by use and the need for greater amounts of the substance to achieve the desired effect. For a more comprehensive picture of addiction, see Substance Abuse Basics.

Misconception: Addiction is shameful and embarrassing.

Reality: Although individuals addicted to alcohol and other drugs may exhibit behavior that is at times inappropriate, the very fact that they do so in spite of negative repercussions serves as evidence that they are not in control of their lives. Research indicates that the problem of addiction is too easily swept under the carpet due to embarrassment and shame—feelings that stem from a belief that they should be able to stop using alcohol and other drugs at any time.

Misconception: If addiction is a disease, then there must be a cure.

Reality: Addiction to alcohol and other drugs is a complex disease with a number of physical and psychological effects. Similar to other chronic conditions, addiction requires some form of treatment or intervention in order to halt the disorder’s progression. Addiction produces significant, lasting changes in brain chemistry and processes, but research demonstrates that treatment for addiction produces long-term benefits. In fact, overall, treatment of addiction is as successful as treatment of other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma.

Misconception: Alcoholism may be a disease, but illegal use of drugs is just a crime.

Reality: Addiction to alcohol and other drugs can be equally devastating, regardless of the legality of a particular substance. Because addiction is a disease, all of those afflicted can benefit from treatment. It is certainly true that illegal drug use may create compounded problems, which treatment can enable individuals to deal with better.

Misconception: Treatment of alcoholism and other drug addictions has no long-term effect. In other words, treatment doesn’t work.

Reality: It is estimated that every dollar spent on treatment returns $4 to $7 in savings to society. A range of studies have shown that treatment for addiction reduces drug use by more than 50 percent and arrests for crimes by 40 percent or more. Treatment also reduces the risk of HIV infection, translating into less money spent on treating people with AIDS. Furthermore, treatment tied to vocational services significantly improves people’s employment prospects.

Misconception: Only those who want drug treatment will benefit from it.

Reality: Virtually no one spontaneously decides to seek treatment, and very few want to go through the rigors of treatment. Two of the primary reasons people seek help are because the court ordered them to or because loved ones urged them to seek it out. Many studies have shown convincingly that people who enter drug treatment programs in which they face "high pressure” to confront and attempt to surmount their addiction do comparatively better, regardless of what prompted them to seek treatment in the first place. Treatment availability is a critical component in preventing abuse of alcohol and other drugs. Its importance cannot be disregarded. For a more comprehensive picture of treatment, see Substance Abuse Basics.

Misconception: There is only one form of treatment for alcoholism and other drug addictions, and if it didn’t work for one person, it won’t work for anybody.

Reality: Similar to other chronic conditions, individuals may have to undergo several courses of treatment before they achieve recovery. While some individuals can stop using alcohol and other drugs "cold turkey,” most require treatment that is ongoing and includes long-term supportive services, and for some, repeated interventions and treatment episodes may be necessary. Different people have different substance abuse disorders, and their response to treatment may vary, even if they are addicted to the same drug. As a result, individuals addicted to alcohol and other drugs need an array of treatment services tailored to address their specific needs. It is important to note that although there are different types of treatment, those that are effective share certain common characteristics. Careful assessment and matching of individuals’ needs to available services, combined with follow-up and support, help to decrease the number of times treatment is needed.

Misconception: People in recovery from addiction are at a higher risk for workplace accidents, injuries and errors than others.

Reality: People in recovery enter the workforce ready to face challenges. Whereas current employees with undetected substance use problems may contribute to workplace accidents, absenteeism and workers’ compensation claims, without acknowledging or recognizing the root of their problems, people in recovery have acknowledged and faced their problems with substance use and overcome them by integrating coping strategies into their daily lives. Such strategies and a commitment to recovery help protect individuals in recovery and their employers against costly mishaps.

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