Whether or not we wish to admit it, we all have our own beliefs regarding the typical addict personality. The problem is that some of us have a much broader view on this than others. That is usually because we have met numerous other addicts, either through social work, family issues, or because we are recovering from addiction ourselves. Even then, it can be easy to stereotype. Some people in recovery will have very different views of other recovering addicts than they have of those who are still in active addiction. And while they will not always be wrong in certain respects, this type of personality branding is still as dangerous as it is unfair.
Why is it dangerous? Well, we’ll get to that. First, however, we’d like to explore some of the standard beliefs regarding what the “typical addict” is like. We would then like to explain the differences between these stereotypes and the true addict personality before exploring why addicts should not be typecast and what we can do to stop it from happening.
The “Typical” Addict Personality
Many people have a very specific view of the “typical” addict personality, even if they can’t always put it into words. But those who can put it into words are often somewhat insensitive toward those who suffer from addiction. Us Weekly posted an article back in 2013, following the death of Cory Monteith (the actor who portrayed the character of Finn on the hit musical TV series Glee). In this article, an anonymous source was quoted as saying “He was not a typical addict where it made him evil. He was the nicest, sweetest guy.”
Not only did this person use the word “evil” to describe the typical addict personality, but that’s the last we even hear of it in the article. No counterpoint is ever given. They easily could have just made this a tribute to Monteith, and paraphrased the part about him being the “nicest, sweetest guy.” But they included the word “evil,” and they did so unapologetically. It was as if they did not even stop to question the implications of such a statement. If you scroll down to the comments of that article, you will naturally find some comments by people who took issue with this terminology. One of them claims (in arguments with several other readers), that “evil” is not at all the correct term; as far as she is concerned, the correct term is simply “weak.”
There’s another article we found that uses similarly negative words to describe those who suffer from addiction. In this article about Charlie Sheen, he is referred to as a “typical addict” before being described with such words as “pathetic.” Now, this article was written by a woman who actually appears to have a lot of sympathy for addicts. She even seems to understand a bit about the disease. But for some readers, that’s only going to lend her negative connotations regarding the “typical” addict personality even more credence.
Not that the author of the aforementioned article is completely wrong regarding some of her descriptions of Sheen’s personality and the manner in which his defects are enhanced by his addiction. If there were not at least a few commonly discernible addict personality traits, we would not be able to publish an article on the signs of addiction and how to tell when a person might need treatment. But that does not mean that all addicts suffer from the same defects. It isn’t that Cory Monteith was not a “typical addict,” but rather that his addiction affected him in a way that did not conform to the stereotypical views of Us Weekly’s anonymous source.
For so many people, words like “weak,” “evil” and “pathetic” come all too naturally when describing the addict personality. They picture someone who hasn’t showered in days, trembling as they peek through the blinds in a state of paranoia before settling in to get their next fix. For some addicts, this might, unfortunately, be a realistic description. But is it truly typical? Can the real addict be boiled down and categorized into such base imagery? What is the real addict personality like, anyway?
The Real Addict Personality
First of all, we should mention that the stereotype of the typical addict personality as “evil” might stem from the fact that many addicts struggle with legal issues. It is estimated that the annual cost of alcoholism is somewhere around $224 billion, while the estimated annual cost of addiction to illicit drugs is somewhere around $193 billion. This does not stem just from costs related to crime and health care, but also to lost work productivity. So it isn’t too surprising that “lazy,” “unemployed” and “irresponsible” tend to make the lists of stereotypes as well.
But let’s stop looking at the money and look at the actual demographics. One of the most comprehensive studies regarding the demographics of substance abusers comes from Ghana in 2005, but the trends have not changed as drastically as you might expect in the past ten years and they are not too different from those of Americans. The study in question shows that many substance abusers begin as teenagers, with most of those in active addiction between 29 and 30 years old. Many of them are educated, with very few dropouts (although there were a fairly significant number of secondary school dropouts). There were many who had divorced parents, but a comparable number had parents who were still married, so it would not be fair to say that most addicts are from broken homes.
The statistics do not differ too greatly in the United States. Many substance abusers begin while they are still teenagers, to the extent that teenagers are actually the largest group of substance abusers in America. It is still high in young adults, as well as in the “baby boomer” generation. Men often use more than women, although women are more likely to abuse prescription pills. Drug use by ethnicity tends to vary in accordance with the drug in question, but there is certainly no ethnic group that is completely free from addiction.
When looking at these demographics, it becomes clear that there is not a single definition of the “typical” addict. It doesn’t matter if the demographics we choose to examine are domestic, or if we are looking at drug use on an international scale. Both genders succumb to addiction, as do all major ethnicities and all age groups. While there may be certain trends, there is no singular addict personality.
The demographics of current users, however, only present one side of the story. The true addict personality goes much, much deeper than that. Addiction affects entire families. It affects mothers. It affects children. A successful intervention will often include numerous family members, as well as other people whose lives have been affected by the sufferer’s addiction and would like to see the addict recover. Why? Because they are not just hung up on who these addicts have become as a result of their drug use; they also remember who they were. We’ll address this further below.
Why We Shouldn’t Stereotype
As we said above, every addict has a history. Some people think of addicts as weak, or evil, or irresponsible, or even worthless. But while they are casting these harsh judgments, they forget about the people who simply see the addict as “my son,” “my daughter,” “my sibling” or “my parent.” To the family of the addict, they are not evil. They are not (or at least were not) weak. They are good people who were once as normal as anybody else until their lives took a turn for the worse.
When we wrote about addicts and legal issues, we mentioned that there were an estimated 23.5 million Americans struggling with addiction. Think about how big that number is. When you were a child, were you on a soccer team? Maybe you did gymnastics. Either way, you likely had friends who you have not talked to in years, possibly even decades. And if you met them today, and found out that they had become one of the above 23.5 million, you would likely be shocked. Why shouldn’t you be? You remember them as a fun-loving child with a bright personality. You never thought that they would ever struggle with addiction.
The same is true of virtually all addicts. When they were younger, nobody knew that they would suffer from this disease. If the disease happens to run in the family, then certain people may have been worried about the possibility, but that does not mean that anybody could have actually expected it. The idea almost sounds ridiculous. After all, it seems as if it would take a monster to look at a child in gym class and think: “One day, that little girl is going to suffer from a crippling heroin addiction.”
We aren’t saying that everyone (or anyone, for that matter) who stereotypes addicts is a monster. The vast majority of them are simply mistaken in believing that there is any one true addict personality. They forget that addicts are born from people who made a few wrong decisions in life and wound up becoming victims of a terrible and often horrifically progressive disease. We actually talked about this in our article on Amy Winehouse. This is what makes it so upsetting whenever an article on a big personality such as Heath Ledger or Philip Seymour Hoffman becomes inundated with comments on how weak the person was. Commenters on such articles will casually commit a form of character assassination based not out of malice, but out of sheer misunderstanding.
It isn’t fair for those who suffer from addiction, nor is it fair to their families, to see them categorized in such unseemly ways. Addicts are as varied and unique as non-users, which is why we consider the “addict personality” to be something of a myth. Again, we are not saying that addicts don’t have certain things in common. But imagine recovering from addiction or—even worse—losing someone to the disease, only to see articles and comments that casually describe addicts as “weak” or “evil.” We imagine that there are quite a few people out there who know just how crushingly horrible that feels.
How We Can Debunk the Myths
It can be pretty difficult to imagine any sort of viable means to debunk the myths of an evil and weak-minded addict personality. First, there’s the fact that most people do not want to break their own anonymity or that of their loved ones by openly declaring their experience with addicts and addiction. This means that they cannot simply say that they are an addict, or that they have known an addict, and find the idea of the addict as a person who is wholly evil or weak-willed to be an abhorrently false belief.
Second, there’s the fact that many of the examples mentioned above come from online articles and the people who comment on them. While it is easy to remain anonymous online, anyone who has ever debated issues such as these has probably learned that many people have a tendency to stick to their guns, even if their ideas are borderline slanderous or based on assumptions rather than experience. Getting sucked into a debate with someone who is unwilling to open their mind to new ideas is a futile (and frankly unhealthy) endeavor.
So, how do we debunk the myths? Well, first of all, remember that people who believe addicts to be amoral or abnormal are not always those who have had no experience with addiction. Sometimes, addicts believe these things about themselves. Every time an addict or alcoholic shares their story in a support group meeting, they are helping the newcomers who might be feeling a bit down on themselves and fearing that they may never recover. Any time the family of an addict or alcoholic volunteers at a facility which provides service to those who still suffers, they are given an opportunity to express their sympathy and demonstrate through their actions that the entire world does not frown upon those who struggle with this disease.
Will these actions debunk the myths overnight? No. Will they keep such stereotypical and unfair beliefs regarding the addict personality from persisting in the minds of many? No. But they will help. And they will help more than just those who suffer from addiction. Just as an addict can share their story at a support group meeting, family members are able to share their experiences at support groups such as Al-Anon/Alateen and Nar-Anon. Not only will it help families learn that they are not alone, and that they are not the only ones who sometimes have doubts about whether or not they truly know what kind of person the addict in their life really is, but it will help them to learn that the person they love is still in there. They just need some help to find themselves again.
If there was only one cookie-cutter addict personality, we wouldn’t go through the trouble of promising to individualize our programs to ensure that all of our patients’ specific treatment needs are met. The fact that addicts are unique individuals and the fact that they were once as normal and carefree as anybody else are not just important for the understanding of others—these facts actually play a role in knowing how best to treat them. Myths and stereotypes help no one. Do not give into them.
Note: The banner for this article is taken from an image that is the intellectual property of user Fillabula from Deviant Art. While the title of the image is “Crack Addict Makeup,” it is our belief that she was simply attempting to show off her talented cosmetic skills. We do not believe it was her intention to stereotype the hygiene or appearance of those who suffer from crack addiction.