Over the past few decades, our society has made progress in understanding alcoholism and addiction. Most now admit they exist, and many recognize at least some of the warning signs. The disease is common on TV: from the 1980s series "Hill Street Blues" to today's "The West Wing" and "Six Feet Under," we've watched people deal with addiction.
Still, the persistence of one misunderstanding surprises me. I talk about addiction with thousands of people around the state each year. I've noticed that they often think that addiction and recovery happen much more quickly than they really do.
Some people seem to believe in "instant addiction" - the idea that chemical dependency can happen from using just one or two times. Even more want "instant recovery" in the family member or employee affected by the disease.
This reflects the suffering of those impacted. Of course they want it to be over yesterday. Also, we live in an "addictive society" where we want everything to happen quickly. And the desire for instant recovery is directly related to an even deeper, persistent misconception: chemical dependency is a question of weak will. They should just stop.
It's important to have more information. If we perpetuate the myth of instant addiction, we will, among other mistakes, give young people wrong information. Since statistics show that many of them will experiment, their experience of not becoming instantly addicted will tell them that we either lied or didn't know what we were talking about.
On the other hand, if we insist on instant recovery for those who are addicted, we will expect too much, too soon of people genuinely trying to get better. We won't see their progress. Few people actually get sober for good on the first try. Almost all slip once, or even a few times, along the way. While we can (and by all means should) enforce clear, escalating consequences, a lack of understanding can actually get in the way.
At Serenity Lane, we understand four steps to both addiction and recovery. The road to dependency starts with experimentation, progresses through regular use, moves into misuse or abuse, and ends up at addiction. Up to the last step, people can generally choose to change direction. However, once the last stage is reached, serious steps, up to and including treatment, are usually required.
Recovery also has its own process. At the beginning, addicted people face denial. Once the situation becomes obvious, they begin to comply (though often feeling coerced). Eventually, they accept the seriousness of the situation, then, hopefully, surrender to the new life of sobriety. None do this perfectly. Still, any treatment professional can point to many people who seemed hopeless but eventually found their way to long-term recovery.
All this means we'll do well to remember that addiction and recovery are processes, not single events. What seems like a problem that "came out of the blue" has usually taken years to develop. And regardless of our impatience for recovery, we can't force it to happen quickly. The more we understand about the process, the more we can contribute to the long-term recovery we all want to see.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer