“The Average Addict”

Average girl

When most people think of addiction, it brings images of run-down houses with people selling drugs, emaciated drug addicts using needles, and addicts who are dirty and unkempt. Even though things change over time and addiction plays out in real life, Hollywood still leans on the traditional view of addiction witnessed in the recent movie Four Good Days starring Mila Kunis. While it is an excellent movie, it shows what is commonly viewed as the way addiction “looks,” just as in the movies Basketball Diaries and Trainspotting. The plot in each may be different, but the behavior associated with addiction and the appearance of the addict are much the same.

From years working in addiction treatment, I can tell you these movies are not completely inaccurate. Addicts who are in that state and exhibit those character traits do exist. However, as with all things made in Hollywood, these movies show a narrow view, the “hallmarks” of a situation, making it easy to understand and digest. As an example, Mila Kunis’s appearance in the film immediately conveys she is a drug addict.

However, perhaps the most surprising fact for many people when they start working in substance abuse is the type of people you actually see—the college student who looks like the head of his football team but is addicted to crack cocaine and entering treatment with multiple felonies; the quiet kid who looks like a straight-A student and who also has been taking the benzos and pain pills he has ordered online resulting in five overdoses in the last two months; or the well-dressed middle-aged man so strung out on Adderall and alcohol that despite making nearly six figures, he has nothing to show for it.

These are all individuals struggling with drug addiction, but it is easy for them to fly under the radar, never getting help as they don’t show the “hallmark traits” of what most people think an addict should look like. There are a couple of problems are caused by this viewpoint.

Stigmas

The idea all addicts look unkempt and disheveled has several negative impacts. The first misconception is anyone who is an addict is unclean or all addicts steal. Not only does this stigma prevent you from seeing the addicts who are clean or who do not steal, but it also extends a label to those who may not even have a substance abuse problem—for example, those struggling with financial difficulties, homelessness or someone fleeing an abusive relationship.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2003) estimates, 38% of homeless people were dependent on alcohol and 26% abused other drugs.

While the organization admits it is hard to get an accurate count due to the nomadic nature of homeless people, this is their best estimate. This view of addiction and subsequent labeling causes both addicts and those struggling with homelessness to be labeled and mistreated.

Camouflage

Focusing on how addicts look leads to another major problem: You cannot always tell by the way a person looks that they are addicted. While some addicts may attempt to hide their addiction, others simply do not fit the stereotype. Many addicts continue to shower, change clothes and attend school while facing a growing problem with addiction. Still, there are nearly always signs that the person is having problems and catching it as early as possible is critical.

When an addiction goes undetected, it decreases the likelihood of treatment as well as prolongs their use and increases the possibility of overdose or a devastating situation like causing an accident while high or drunk, or worse.

Just because an individual can hide behind an outward appearance does not mean they are at less risk of an overdose or accruing a criminal record. This is why it is important to really know the signs of addiction.

During my time working with those struggling with substance abuse, I have seen just as many if not more addicts who seem fine on the outside. Often, they went years getting further and further into addiction before anyone noticed and did anything about their situation. This is not to say those around them are to blame; however, knowing what to look for does not take an excessive amount of time to learn which could ultimately save your loved one’s life.

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