Breaking the Stigma of Addiction

If you’re like me when I was in my active addiction, you did everything you could to try to prove to yourself and others that you weren’t an addict. For me, I had no clue what addiction actually was even though my mom was a full-blown alcoholic. When my mom admitted she was an alcoholic and got sober 10 years ago, I was in my addiction and still didn’t think I had a problem because I compared my drinking and using to hers. Since I didn’t act the same way she did, I thought that my problem wasn’t as severe.

Even when I went to AA the first time I “tried to get sober” or the detox center I went to when I realized I couldn’t stop, I still didn’t fully concede to the notion that I had a problem beyond my control. Why didn’t I think I was an addict? The simple fact is that I had no idea what being an addict actually meant, and I was contributing to the stigma of addiction. Now that I’m an addict who has been sober for over three years, I do everything I can to help educate people and decrease the stigma wherever possible because I truly believe that more people will be able to get help if addicts aren’t looked down upon as bad people. We’re sick people who are trying to get well.

What I thought an Addict Was

My mom was a violent alcoholic, which is why I thought that my problem wasn’t all that bad. There were numerous occasions when my mom was drunk and became violent in nature and did a lot of things that frightened me as a child. I was different though. I was an isolative addict. I’d drink and use into oblivion, but I just liked to be alone, and I never did anything violent in my active addiction.

I lost one of my closest friends to alcoholism while I was still actively drinking and using, and she was only 24 years old. Her and I often talked about getting sober together or helping each other drink normally, but we had no clue what the disease of addiction actually was. Sure, we had heard of AA and rehabs, but we thought these were for old men or people who were homeless as a result of destroying their lives from drinking or using drugs. When I went to AA and the detox facility, I kept looking at the differences, which fueled the justifications for my drinking and using. They were hooked on heroin or did three times as many pills as I did, so it helped my disease tell me that I didn’t have a problem.

I heard stories of people stealing from family members, robbing people on the streets and doing other morally compromising things to feed their addiction, so I thought I was different. At some point in my early recovery, I remember thinking, “If I’m not an addict, then who the heck is?” I thought this because the more I learned about addiction and dove into the Big Book of AA, I realized that I did everything that an alcoholic or addict does, but it was only because I began seeing the similarities.

The People I’ve met in Recovery

When I got sober, I was baffled at the genuine love people in the rooms of AA and NA gave me. As I got to know them, I realized that most of them were like me. They were people who were compassionate and caring, but their addiction caused them to do some terrible things. The more I learned about addiction and how it affects the brain, the more I realized that we were all pretty decent human beings who are affected by a very powerful mental illness.

The Big Book talks about how most alcoholics are smart, kind and motivated individuals, but alcoholism can completely change them. The book even refers to these types of people as a form of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I could really relate to this. I always felt that I was this really giving person, but when it came to me drinking or using, nobody else in the world mattered. Now that I’m sober, I’ve been able to become the person I always thought I was an wanted to be.

Helping to Decrease the Stigma

I talked about some of this in my previous article about anonymity, but I think many people can relate, so I feel it’s right to discuss it as much as possible. I was embarrassed when I found out I was an addict. I figured that if I had always assumed that all addicts were these terrible people, then that meant people would think that as me if I let people know that I was an addict in recovery. I didn’t want to be looked at differently or treated differently just because I suffer from addiction, but then I learned how to own it.

Today, I do everything I can to help decrease the stigma of addiction. I write these articles and encourage non-addicts or “normies” to read them as well. I want people to realize that we’re just regular people who can’t drink or use drugs. The problem is that we suffer from an illness that makes us make some bad, selfish and self-centered choices. This is why nobody looks down on someone who gets diagnosed with an illness like cancer, diabetes or any other illness. Those who are diagnosed with other illnesses are given compassion by all, and it should be the same for addicts to a certain extent.

If more people understood that addiction is a disease beyond our control, how many more people do you think would make the attempt to get help? I try to lead by example by not being embarrassed of this disease that I’m recovering from. This is why I am always more than happy to answer any questions about my history of addiction with anyone who asks. The person I’m talking to may have a family member, friend or co-worker who is struggling with addiction, and it may give the person I’m talking to a little bit more compassion towards the struggling addict’s situation.

There are also celebrities who openly talk about their history with addiction, and I admire them for that. Whether I like the celebrity’s work or not, I appreciate anyone who adds to the effort to break the stigma of addiction. Just a year or two ago, Robert Downey Jr.’s son was arrested for drug charges, and RDJ stood by his son. He didn’t run away thinking that it embarrassed him or ruined his career because he gets it. He knows that addiction can be passed on genetically, and he stated this publicly as well as the fact that he’ll do whatever he can to help his son get well if his son chooses to do so.

Personally, I love what hip-hop artist Macklemore does on a regular basis, which is openly talk about his history with addiction. In his song Otherside, he talks about how progressive the disease of addiction can be and how we turn into people we never thought we’d be. His song Starting Over is a personal story about relapsing after three years of sobriety. In Starting Over, he says something powerful that anyone dealing with relapse should take to heart, and that’s his line “If I can be an example of getting sober, then I can be an example of starting over.” In his most recent song about addiction, which is titled Kevin, he talks about losing one of his closest friends to a prescription drug addiction and the problems with prescription drug abuse in the United States today.

You too can help decrease the stigma of addiction, and it happens through continuing to work a program of recovery. Be the shining example on a daily basis of what a recovering addict can be. Whether that’s going back to school and getting an amazing career or doing selfless acts and being of service on a regular basis, you can help change the way people see addicts. The more knowledge there is about the struggle that each of us went through in our active addiction means we may be able to help more people get the help they need.