Breaking the Stigma of Addiction in a Misunderstood Society

Breaking the Stigma of Addiction in a Misunderstood Society

I haven’t always worked in addiction treatment, nor can I recall being overly exposed to addiction or alcoholism for the majority of my life growing up.  For the longest time, neither recovery or addiction had any meaning in my life. In the beginning, my perception of an ‘addict’ fit the commonly held stigma of the homeless guy living under the bridge, begging for money to fuel his drug habit. There’s so many things I didn’t know- it’s startling. 

I didn’t know that 13 years old is the average age that most addicts and alcoholics began using. I didn’t know how easily accessible prescription drugs, heroin and meth really are to anyone and everyone. I never considered the fact that my college friends who drank daily more than likely had a real problem- that maybe they didn’t want to be completely obliterated 24/7.  I didn’t know that the average addict or alcoholic is not a homeless troll, but likely someone you know or love. Neighbors, friends and loved ones- all desperately trying to keep their lives together in a delicate balancing act, until one day, it all falls apart for them. I didn’t know that addiction wants the person and the body it possesses to die.

There’s a good chance someone you know is addicted to drugs right now; you just may not realize it. Or maybe you do know, but you hide their addiction because of the attached stigma. Or maybe you don’t hide it, but you end up shaming them instead. Or maybe you choose not to shame them, but you slowly phase them out of your life because you don’t want to be around them anymore or because you just can’t do it anymore. You may choose to keep them around, decide to talk about them behind their backs, discuss how sad it is that they refuse to get help, and vow to be better than they are. Maybe the story will have a happy ending-if they find the help they need. Or maybe it won’t, because relapse and death make for a heartbreaking ending.

Opioid addiction and overdose are preventable and treatable. In all the talk about the overdose crisis in this country, we have yet to acknowledge or recognize one of the biggest killers- the stigma and shame attached to the disease. The stigma of addiction led to Prince’s death, just like it leads to others every single day. The word ‘addiction’ in and of itself, carries negative connotations and associations- as if ‘addiction’ was a living, breathing entity caused by lack of morals, lack of strength or a flawed character. The stigma that society has created keeps the ones that need help alone, hopeless and ashamed. In countless stories of fatal overdoses, we have learned that individuals and families affected by addiction have refused to acknowledge addiction. Whether they are trying to avoid tarnishing their reputations, protect their privacy, or never knew their loved one had an addiction, stigma is to blame. The missed opportunities that could have prevented Prince’s death are astounding, and sadly, not surprising, as he died alone that night. Why didn’t Prince, or others around him, acknowledge his addiction and seek care earlier? 

Too often, people use drugs alone because of shame. Addiction treatment saves lives, and that’s a fact. However, due in large part to stigma, not enough people who need treatment seek it. If we continue to brush addiction under the rug, more and more people will die-no one has immunity from this unforgiving disease. The reality is that those millions of people can’t talk openly about their addiction or recovery without the sickened stares and harsh judgments. The hope for a better life isn’t easily communicated to someone trying so hard to suffer quietly and in the dark for fear of judgment and shame. 

People seriously need to stop cringing every time they hear the words addiction or addict. Here’s a thought: If people weren’t so shamed of the addicts and alcoholics in their lives, maybe they’d actually have time to help them. Making things more difficult is that many people have the ‘don’t ask; don’t tell’ mindset when it comes to addiction. Meaning, if we don’t talk about it, we don’t have it. Ah, makes sense. So if we don’t have it, our friends and family will continue to accept us?

Is this really a practical or justified argument?       I think not. 
Seriously, why is it so freaking hard to talk about addiction and recovery?  

Adding to the madness, I cannot, for the life of me, comprehend why society chooses to associate this stigma only with addicts from certain socioeconomic classes or classes of people. It makes no sense, honestly. Why did no one point the finger at Michael Jackson or Prince when they passed away? They had addiction problems, right? There was no one in the media saying they deserved their fate. Everyone went into immediate mourning over beautiful lives cut too short. The color purple lit up the sky.  Yet in the end, Prince died from abusing the same prescription medications that kill so many addict’s in our streets. Prince overdosed and died alone just like many of the others- but no one left flowers, lit candles or held world wide memorials for them. It’s the same for Whitney and all the other rich and famous people who die exactly the way our loved ones have died-from drug overdoses. Yet, they received not so much as an ounce of ‘bad’ publicity. 

Deaths of celebrities bring the deadly consequences of drug and alcohol abuse into the spotlight, but they aren’t the only ones suffering. People just like you and me are suffering every single day-paying the price for the strength of their untreated disease.  My hope is that one day society will stop accepting overdose deaths as a tragedy for some and a self inflicted choice for others. No one deserves to die from an overdose. Until society changes its perception of addiction and realizes that it is a disease that knows no boundaries, beautiful people will continue to die. Rich and famous or poor and unknown it really doesn’t matter. Like I said, an addict is an addict, and they are all suffering from a devastating demon we call addiction.

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