The stigma of addiction is contagious. I grew up in a community that told me addiction was a moral failure. The alcoholic neighbor was referred to as, “He’s crazy.” The former church leader was remembered with, “I am glad she’s gone-she had an eating disorder and those people are trouble.” My still forming teenage brain took note, “addictions equal bad people.” So when I realized I had an addiction I thought that I too, was bad.
Having worked through my own recovery and as a support counselor in a rehab, I have come to learn that the stigma is far from the truth. Across the board people who struggle with addiction are incredibly hard working and intelligent. In fact, a study published in Annals of General Psychiatry reports that anorexics score 5.9 to 10.8 units higher than the average person on I.Q. tests. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t throw that, ‘bad baby’ out with the bathwater.
People who struggle with addiction are like everyone else; they’re neither sinners nor saints. The only difference is their ‘sins’ just appear more vividly than everyone else’s. In order to stop the stigma of addiction it’s going to take the collective effort of those of us in recovery to candidly share our stories.
The problem is the general public only hears about the troubled addict, not the successful person in recovery. The person who has risen up to be an accomplished, compassionate and responsible individual is rarely seen. Simply because we haven’t shared that part of ourselves with them. It’s in the conversations that we shamefully shy away from that we fuel the stigma.
Patrick Corrigan a stigma researcher, says coming out as a person in addiction recovery is the number one thing that’s going to change people’s perceptions of this population. Much like the Gay Rights Movement did for gays and lesbians. He says,“The stigma around LGBT rights have come a long way, and it’s not because the kids learned it was all genetics, it’s because real people- their friends and family are out.”
When a person in recovery shares the details of their story with someone who hasn’t been affected by addiction it shines a light on the many facets of the disease. People need to understand the human behind the disorder. When they do, their own conversations start to change. They become advocates who correct the misconceptions of addiction. They say, “Hold-up. My sister struggled with alcoholism. She isn’t crazy she was in a lot of pain and didn’t know how to handle it. Just like you and I, she is a human that has made mistakes.”
These conversations are going to stop the stigma. Yet, it still takes inner strength and courage to share your story. Here are some steps to get you started:
Drop The Shame
A lot of us in recovery look back on our using days with thoughts like,
“It took me so long to get it together…”
“I hurt so many people…”
“I was so stupid…”
This shame filled thinking keeps us quiet. Instead, the next time you have an addiction memory replace the thought with compassion for the WHOLE person that you are. The person that was under the vices of a powerful disease and chose to fight for your life. For instance,
“It took me a long time to get it together and I am thankful that I eventually did. So many people never get recovery.”
“I hurt so many people and I am so thankful for the opportunities I have had to apologize and correct my wrongs.”
“I did some stupid things, but today I have self-awareness that helps me make wise decisions.”
When you look back on your life don’t forget to trail back to the present day and look at the person you’ve become. When you’re able to remember your story without shame you’ll be able to acknowledge the strength it took to overcome the addiction.
When we hear that someone has cancer we rally by their side calling them a fighter, survivor and a hero. Why don’t we say the same for those who have overcome addiction? Why don’t we share that loud and proud via social media? Just like cancer, addiction is classified as a deadly disease.
According to David Sack, psychiatrist and chief executive of Elements Behavioral Health, addiction has three main characteristics that cause it to be considered a disease.
- It gets passed through genetics
- It’s progressive, getting worse over time and can lead to death
- It can be treated with medications
When you think about your addiction recovery remember that you’ve overcome a disease that has taken many, many lives. One of my favorite sayings is, “Me compared to me.” Compare who you are today to the person you were in your addiction. Own that you’ve battled a disease and lived to tell about the war you won. Fighting a disease of the mind shows incredible strength.
Rewrite Your Story
I’m all for a good addiction story. Waking up on a toilet seat with your forehead resting on a toilette paper roll, and realizing that it’s 7 a.m., and you slept in the bathroom of the bar you were drunk in last night, is preeeeeety epic.
Since you’re already a good story teller, I’m going to give you a challenge. For every Rocky Horror Blitzed Picture Show story you tell, match it with one that highlights your success. Tell the story about how hard it was to string three days of sobriety together. How you battled for months and thought it may never happen for you. Then, there was that one night where your recovery buddy stayed on the phone with you until 12:05 a.m. just to make sure you got your third day of sobriety. Share about how much inner strength it takes to win the battle. That’s a story worth telling.
When you remove the shame, embody strength and rewrite your story you can then share it with the people you love. When they better understand what you have experienced they can develop compassion for addiction. Further, they will carry your recovery story into their own conversations about addiction. This is how all change has happened, from the civil rights movement to gay marriage. Your story could be the illustration that stops the stigma. Remember that when you share the strength in your recovery that story becomes contagious.