How Stigma Affects Recovery
As far as we’ve come as a society in our understanding of addiction there is still an overarching societal stigma that comes with being an addict or an alcoholic. The pervasive thought being that addicts and alcoholics are some shadowy figures lurking around the corner ready to rob you for their fix. While in some cases this may be true, the reality is that more and likely the addict or alcoholic lives next door to you. They may be your co-worker or friend and they can be found among all walks of life regardless of race or socioeconomic background. The thing is that there is the unfortunate widely held belief that addiction is a moral failing and not a disease.
This feeds into the societal stigma as addicts are viewed as morally corrupt and not suffering from a chronic illness.
Grasping this is difficult for many people because drug addiction and alcoholism is such a foreign concept to them. Many cannot understand why the alcoholic or addict cannot just stop using and many times the people they know afflicted with these ailments do not help in usurping these stigmas because they act erratically and in ways that are not conducive to living a socially acceptable life. If you add to this the ongoing scientific dissent that is currently ongoing it is no wonder that the stigma is still a pervasive part of society.
On a societal level we have seen this stigma play out in harsh prison sentences for drug addicts and the criminalization of addiction. This started in the 70’s with the “War On Drugs” and for 40 years drug addicts have been labeled incorrectly as bad people. As a society we accepted these ideas and believed that locking up drug addicts was the correct way of going about dealing with this issue- that is until the prison population boomed to over 2 million and we found ourselves facing the reality that maybe our stance wasn’t working.
Over the past few years there has been a movement away from punishing the drug addict and with the recent passing of the CARA Bill there is hope that the stigma attached to alcoholism and addiction will be reduced even further. This bill looks to treat drug addiction as the public health concern is it and get drug addicts and alcoholics the treatment they need, rather than lock them up in cells.
As important a step as this is in alleviating the societal stigma attached to drug addiction and alcoholism, the fact remains that the prevalence of misunderstanding in the wider population towards these disease has affected many people’s ability to get help.
Not only does the stigma physically block people from getting the help they so desperately need, but on a personal level many addicts and alcoholics do not ask for help for fear of reprisal and misunderstanding.
It is difficult enough for someone with addiction to admit to themselves that they have a problem, as denial and delusion is a chief characteristic of many active users, but admitting to another person their problem can be almost impossible. Add to this dilemma the fact that many people will not understand what you are actually experiencing and you have a recipe for disaster.
This dilemma of the alcoholic or addict is nothing new and in fact the namesake of 12 Step programs reinforces it. Anonymous. Almost every 12 Step program has the word anonymous in it because at the time they were created if the members branded themselves in public as alcoholics they would more than likely experience disaster in their careers or family life. So they had to hide who they truly were in order to have a safe space in order to recover. This isn’t inherently a bad thing as people have a choice as to whether or not they want to put out into the public sphere their personal business, but the fact that they were anonymous out of necessity and not choice speaks volumes to what many alcoholics and addicts have experienced.
To a person who is on the fringe of asking for helping with their addiction the fear of outing themselves as having a problem is very real and very difficult to overcome. There is the fear that going away to rehab for a month or so will bring unwanted scrutiny and questions that they’d rather not answer. There is the fear that people will turn their backs on them because they don’t understand what being an addict is. And there is the fear that asking for help will be perceived as a sign of weakness and not strength. All of this combines to create a scenario where people remain silent about their need for help far longer than necessary.
This was the case for me. I knew that I needed help with my addiction for many years before I actually got help. I was partially afraid that if I actually asked for help I’d have to stop and that scared me tremendously, but I also knew that truly surrendering and asking for help meant I’d have to drop all of the pretense and open myself up for judgment. I knew it meant that I could no longer hide from the people in my life and I wasn’t sure how they would react.
The thing about all of this is that most people did not react as I thought they would. On a personal level people were a lot more understanding than I could have ever imagined they were going to be. That is not to say that everyone understood what I was going through, but the people closest to me did their best to be supportive in any way they could. There are definitely those out there who do not wish me well and even now continue to doubt my commitment to recovery. That is ok not everyone has to like me today.
That is the interesting thing about human nature. Collectively we can arrive at conclusions that do not hold up on a personal level. The societally held stigma against addicts is one such conclusion. As a society we tend to shun and belittle the drug addict, which makes asking for help harder, but on a personal one-on-one level this is rarely the case. Hopefully as we continue our discussion on addiction in this country we can make it more personable and understanding. This will hopefully result in more people getting help, and less people hiding their addiction for fear that they will be judged and ostracized.
Rose Lockinger is passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.