A famous poster released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism depicts a range of people from every kind of background (Native American, rabbi, "good" girl) and claims that each represents the "typical alcoholic." The point: there is no typical alcoholic and, by extension, everyone is equally susceptible to alcoholism and addiction. The science of epidemiology knocks this idea for a loop. But we don't need epidemiology to tell us what everyone already knows.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 29, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Addiction Myth #1 -- addiction is an equal-opportunity despoiler

Typical Alcoholic

A famous poster released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism depicts a range of people from every kind of background and claims that each represents the "typical alcoholic." The point: there is no typical alcoholic and, by extension, everyone is equally susceptible to alcoholism and addiction. Unfortunately, the science of epidemiology knocks this idea for a loop.

But we don't need epidemiology to tell us what everyone already knows.  Do you believe that Native Americans living in poverty are no more likely to become alcoholic than doctors? Really? Have I got a bridge to sell you - or else, you can become an addiction and alcoholism expert.  These worthies tell us that, since addiction is a disease, it can just as readily befall people in any social situation. In fact, the reliable ways social factors predict addiction and substance abuse prove addiction is not a disease.

"Well," you say, "there are more drugs in poor neighborhoods, and that's why there is more addiction in these places." Really? Have I got a National Survey on Drug Use and Health for you. The better-educated you are and the higher your socioeconomic status, the more likely you are to drink, but the less likely you are to drink unhealthily. And kids from better-off economic backgrounds are at least as likely to use drugs as kids in poor neighborhoods. People with more control of their lives don't avoid substances - they control their substance use. It really is Psych 101.

Yes, successful, smart people succumb to addictions. And don't we love to read about them! They prove that "perfect" people are not perfect. But, more often than not, being raised under comfortable economic conditions, growing up in an in-tact non-violent family, doing well in school, living in a good neighborhood, not having a major emotional issue - you're unlikely to be sidetracked by substance abuse and addiction. And the opposites of all of these characteristics are risk factors for addiction.

As I point out in Addiction-Proof Your Child, everyone in school knows who the high-risk children are - that's why they're called "high risk" - the ones who don't fit in, who have troubled home lives and their own emotional problems, who get poor grades and don't participate in school activities, and who early on get in trouble with authorities.

"Now, wait a second," you say - "that sounds like me as a kid, and I turned out fine." Really? You had a bad economic and family situation, poor study habits, frequent emotional distress, no constructive interests? This last distinguishes many who fall outside the high-risk pale. If you had a strong motivation to pursue something as a kid, you were the opposite of high risk.  This is why any good school administration will encourage whatever positive predilections kids exhibit, even if they're not the kind that lead to careers in medicine, law, or nuclear physics.

You only need one strong set of skills and interests to build a life. But even if you don't translate a childhood interest into a career, it teaches you to focus and to marshal your resources in ways that provide lifelong lessons, values, and skills.

Why do addiction experts love to tell us the opposite of what every school teacher - every sensible person - knows is true? We've already seen that they want to sell us a bill of goods. But the delusion that addiction is unrelated to an individual's social and personal resources is critical because it causes us to misallocate our resources in worrisome ways.

For example, United States government agencies are now honeycombed with addiction prevention and treatment programs. Who would vote against more addiction programs? But these programs and expenditures come at the cost of downplaying fundamental job training, housing support, education, skills training etc. - programs which address the foundation for non-addicted lives. We are actually systematically undermining the basis for preventing addiction in our society with our focus on addiction!

I know what you're thinking - I must have been one of those high-risk children who didn't get along in school. Ask me one night when you catch me in a bar, and I'll tell you all about it.