Exposed – The Dangers of Romanticizing Addiction

Understanding Addiction: Reality vs. Fantasy and the Steps to De-Romanticize it

Profile photo of Dr. Howard Wetsman - | 13 comments
The dangers of romanticizing addiction

Everyone loves a good story. We believe in forces we cannot see, conspiracies we’re not a part of, and powers beyond our control.

Maybe the child inside us all just wants someone bigger and stronger to be in charge. Maybe we need the narrative to find comfort in this world or make sense of overwhelming chaos.

But reality doesn’t tell stories: We anthropomorphize nature by projecting stories onto it.

Rather than an illness caused by the random shuffling of genetics and our environment, we want addiction to be something we’ve created or something that happens for a higher purpose.

Assigning blame means attributing a reason to something’s existence, and explanation makes a messy, ugly phenomenon like addiction much easier to deal with.

We love a good mystery, but we dislike when chance ruins our story.

Romanticizing addiction gives us a sense of power over something that often makes us feel powerless — even if it’s only the power to explain.

But it’s a false explanation whose very existence makes it impossible for our society to deal with the illness.

“Be patient with yourself. Self-growth is tender; it’s holy ground. There’s no greater investment.” ~ Stephen Covey

Addiction Fools Everyone, Not Just the Person Affected

Addiction is a chronic illness of the brain; it never goes away. People with addiction can recover, and the illness can be put into remission, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.

The biological seat of addiction lies beneath the cortex in the midbrain, which is concerned with life and death and cannot be willed away by the conscious self. People without addiction cannot understand its deep, primal power.

People without addiction compare the illness to the greatest attachments in their own lives, and they say things like “Addiction is like a best friend,” when in reality, that relationship pales in comparison with the attachment in addiction.

Romanticizing addiction also helps to process consequences that seem too tragic to accept. Celebrities like Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Heath Ledger are remembered as geniuses who were “taken” before they could realize their full potential.

Another false narrative surrounding addiction — usually told by those who haven’t experienced it but are working to fight the issue on a grander level — is that it’s an insidious, poorly understood process that wreaks poverty and crime upon society.

People with addiction can’t explain it any better. It remains an unfathomable phenomenon, so they blame it on situational factors. They might, for instance, claim somebody or something “drives them to drink.”

Even in recovery, the fantasy can remain. Viewed from a place of nostalgia, addiction becomes a blessing that led to finding like-minded friends and discovering a higher purpose.

Romanticizations keep us from facing reality. We keep getting the same kinds of results because we keep making up stories.

To make inroads against addiction, we must face the unpleasant truth of the matter.

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” ~ Soren Kierkegaard

Why the Fantasy Holds Us Back

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman outlines two modes of thought: fast (“System I”) and slow (“System II”).

System I loves a good story. It’s the part of our brains that’s automatic, instinctive, and quick enough to help us survive in a hard, unpredictable world. It gives us a way to make decisions without having enough information, and usually, we love the thrill of it.

System II, on the other hand, is work. It takes time, looks at data, and then makes decisions. Usually, there’s no thrill for us to love.

In the long run, System II provides a better way to govern our lives. But we live most of our lives in System I’s romantic state, which is why we force things like addiction to fit our narratives.

Reality Check

The more we romanticize addiction, the more difficult it is to overcome its grip and often-fatal consequences, like substance abuse.

It’s hard to imagine that what some consider a “blessing in disguise” is the same thing that causes nearly 44,000 people to die every year from drug overdoses.

But addiction is hardly confined to illicit drugs.

More than 16 percent of people in the United States older than 12 suffer from addiction involving nicotine, alcohol, or drugs. Only 10 percent of these individuals receive treatment, and far fewer ever effectively recover.

It can be incredibly difficult for people with and without addiction alike to admit that it’s just an illness, not an uncontrollable circumstance or a wicked twist of fate.

Like all illnesses, it can only be eradicated by addressing the realities of its existence.

“You can’t blame gravity for falling in love” ~ Albert Einstein

The Realities of Addiction

In baseball, the first rule you’re taught is to keep your eye on the ball. Don’t imagine hitting a home run; don’t envision yourself running a victory lap to home plate.

Otherwise, you’ll miss the ball that’s coming at you hard and fast.

That’s what addiction is like. Every day is a single, small step toward recovery. Rather than focus on being sober “someday,” focus instead on how to stay sober today, and you’re less likely to stumble.

You have to think in the moment to thrive in the moment, and when treating addiction, patients and doctors often place too much emphasis on the end goal.

3 Steps to Remove the ‘Romance’ From Addiction

Keep your mind in the here and now by following these few steps:

1. Involve Others in Your Journey

Peers are often the first reason someone tries drugs, but peer pressure works both ways.

People who want you to succeed, and those who are fighting for the same kind of success, will help bring you back to reality when you start to drift off.

Surround yourself with other people who are recovering, or who have loved ones in recovery, and tell them everything about your history. They, better than anyone else, will know if you’re romanticizing addiction and will warn you to check your reality.

2. Take Inventory of Yourself

The formal inventory process of 12-step recovery programs works wonders in keeping people from romanticizing addiction.

But it’s not magic or even a revolutionary treatment. It involves chronicling your thoughts and feelings in the present to keep your mind from wandering into the past and future or from creating a fantasy around your day-to-day life.

Journaling also empowers you to see your situation clearly. You might think your current situation is worse than anything you’ve ever faced, but your journal might say differently.

You may find that you’ve already conquered the same fears and frustrations in the past, and doing so now is just as possible. Don’t forget millions have trod the same path and remained steadfastly on the course.

If you journaled without intent, you might end up writing fables or stories, but the inventory process should be short and sweet. (“Just the facts, ma’am.”)

Remember — the trick is to avoid clouding the truth. Hyperbole is just another way to fictionalize your experience.

3. Face the Facts of Your Addiction

Memory is selective, and the more time that passes between now and the past, the more tainted your memory of certain things can become. Without a clear recollection of the circumstances that led you to today, you might be destined to repeat the same mistakes again and again.

When you look at the past through rose-colored glasses, you can get caught up reminiscing about the “good ol’ days.” But if you remember how you really felt and how you really behaved in those days, they may not seem so good.

That’s the beauty of an addiction journal.

By sharing your thoughts with others and writing down your day-to-day emotions, you’ll keep your eyes on the facts. Addicts in recovery must constantly remind themselves of how things were to prevent them from reliving those same struggles.

“Every person must choose how much truth he can stand.” ~ Irvin D. Yalom

Beating the Odds

Addiction may be surrounded with romantic stories. However, facts are anything but that. Addiction (not limited to substance use) is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and it’s a contributing factor behind other big killers as well.

And of those who remain sober for up to a year, little less than half still has a chance of relapsing.

Facing reality is your best chance of beating the odds. Don’t thank your addiction for leading you to a more spiritual existence — and don’t hate it for its presence in your life, either.

It’s just an illness, merely something you have to deal with. Be thankful for those who support you in your daily journey.

And if you’re already in recovery, don’t reminisce. Learn from the mistakes you made so the future can be brighter than ever.

Most importantly, don’t romanticize addiction in your attempt to conquer it. Be the hero by facing addiction head-on and defeating it in the real world.

“Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Over to You –

Are you or a loved one currently battling addiction? What ways have you discovered to keep from romanticizing the illness?



Profile photo of Dr. Howard Wetsman
Dr. Howard Wetsman is an addiction medicine physician and psychiatrist living in New Orleans. He is the chief medical officer of Townsend Treatment Center in Louisiana and is a member of the board of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. He blogs at AddictionDoctor.

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13 Comments - Read and share thoughts

  1. Lisa Thomson

    September 21, 2016 at 6:57 am

    Great piece. I’ve never heard of addiction being romanticized. I’ve noticed it’s used as humour a little too often though in movies and sit comes. Thanks for the tips and explaining the science behind addiction.

    • Howard Wetsman

      September 22, 2016 at 5:58 am

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for your kind words.
      h

  2. Amar kumar

    September 21, 2016 at 11:18 am

    Hey Howard,

    Many people who are unable to distinguish the difference between what is real and what is just a facade may have difficulty handling their money, often times finding themselves in the seats of the closest casino with chips in hand. Romanticizing a life filled with money acquired by gambling can be extremely dangerous.

    Today several facts are responsible for our addiction in our life. In our life many crucial circumstances arises that led to addiction may be good or bad. Eventually, thanks for sharing your worthy thought via this post.

    With best regards,

    Amar kumar

    • Howard Wetsman

      September 22, 2016 at 5:59 am

      You’re so right about the money Amar. Thanks for reading, and for your comment.
      h

  3. Profile photo of Ilka Emig

    Ilka Emig

    September 21, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    Hi Howard!

    Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge about addiction. And thanks Harleena for inviting Howard to post on your blog.

    Addiction should never be romanticized since it robs a person of freedom and independence. Great tip for dealing with it.

    Best, Ilka

  4. Ryan Biddulph

    September 22, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    The Rilkie quote is beyond brilliant. When you do the inner work you see addiction is something you can control, that actually needs your help. Or, the addiction exists to teach you more about you. Or to intro the little you to the big you. But no can do on the romanticizing bit because this only adds sex appeal to your addiction story. Thanks Dr. Howard for sharing!

  5. Profile photo of Ravi Chahar

    Ravi Chahar

    September 22, 2016 at 10:15 pm

    Hey Howard,

    I am surprised to read that there is a term like the romanticizing addiction. I mean is that because fantasize about having a good time with someone or something like that.

    We all have fantasies and it’s hard to control on them. But if you do that for more extent then it would become an addiction.

    This article is going to help many people.
    Thanks for sharing with us.
    ~Ravi

  6. Donna Merrill

    September 23, 2016 at 2:05 am

    Hi Howard,

    What a brilliant way of explaining addiction. As a recovering nicotine addict, I still have those “romance” dreams of smoking a long skinny cigarette and I look gorgeous. I can see what you mean here.

    -Donna

  7. Kathryn Maclean

    September 23, 2016 at 2:32 am

    I know this to be true having lived with an addict who finally accepted what he could not change. He went on the be a Drug and Alcohol counselor.

    I like this “That’s what addiction is like. Every day is a single, small step toward recovery. Rather than focus on being sober “someday,” focus instead on how to stay sober today, and you’re less likely to stumble.”

    Great article!

  8. Profile photo of Vernon Layne

    Vernon Layne

    September 28, 2016 at 10:09 am

    Hi Dr Wetsman,
    I’m a recovering addict and I always had said if it wasn’t for my addict I wouldn’t had hit rock bottom or found a personal relationship with God.
    Recovery starts with not only facing reality but accepting it.
    No one can recovery by themselves we all need someone we can trust and tell on ourselves to.
    Thanks for the insight.

  9. Profile photo of Ikechi Awazie

    Ikechi Awazie

    October 5, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    Hi Howard

    A very interesting concept and I never knew that addiction could be romanticized. Indeed I do agree that playing with addiction is putting your hands in the fire. It will burn eventually.

    Thanks for sharing this amazing piece. Have a cool day. Take Care

  10. Sathish Arumugam

    November 9, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    Very well explained. Great ideas that you have mentioned. You have shared the fantastic article. We never knew addiction leads to romanticized. One should not easily get addicted to anything. As human beings, one should have our self-control. We need to face every problem with confidence.

    Thanks for sharing a useful post, all the best.



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Exposed – The Dangers of Romanticizing Addiction

by Dr. Howard Wetsman time to read: 6 min