The Lasting Stigma of Addiction
A recent essay in the Los Angeles Times shows that the stigma surrounding addiction is alive and well.
Yesterday, I read an essay in the Los Angeles Times titled “L.A. Affairs: You got sober? Good for you, but we can’t date.” As a recovering alcoholic who has devoted a substantial amount of time to fighting the stigma surrounding addiction, it frustrated me to no end to see something like this appearing in a major paper.
The author’s basic premise was that after a lifetime of falling for addicts — and a long relationship with an addict in recovery — she was done. She was sick of the relapses, the al-anon meetings, and the trips to rehab. She would never date another addict again, no matter how long they’d been sober.
Let me be clear: I don’t begrudge the author her decision. I get it. I know how difficult addicts are to be around, and I know how hard it is to repair trust, even years after getting sober. I can absolutely sympathize with the decision not to date an addict.
However, what I can’t comprehend is why we need an article about it in a major daily newspaper. I’ve been racking my brain for the past day, and I just don’t understand what this article achieves, aside from contributing to the already massive stigma surrounding addiction.
The author’s message, whether intended or not, is that recovering addicts are not to be trusted. No matter how many years they’ve been sober, no matter how much work they’ve done to repair their lives and mental health, they’re destined to relapse, causing their partners pain and heartbreak.
It’s an outdated idea that has been completely rejected by modern psychology. According to Dr. Omar Manejwala, after one year of sobriety, relapse rates drop to less than 50%. After five years, relapse rates drop to less than 15%. Although relapse is still possible, it is absolutely not the norm.
Early in her essay, the author claims that she is “not disparaging addicts or alcoholics who have taken the step to improve their life with sobriety.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she is doing, albeit unintentionally. By generalizing from her handful of personal interactions, she’s casting a dark cloud on all recovering addicts.
With all of that said, my frustration really isn’t with the writer. It’s clear from the essay that she is actually empathetic towards addicts in general, and that she has put a great deal of effort into supporting recovering addicts in her life. For her, I think this article was mostly just a chance to vent.
I am angry, however, with the LA Times, for choosing to print this essay. I think that newspapers select pieces like this precisely because they will drum up controversy, increasing their page views and ad revenue. Do the editors at the LA Times care at all about the negative effects that story might have? I doubt it.
I was reluctant to write this post, because I know that I’m playing right into their strategy. However, I decided to say something because I remember reading articles like this before I quit drinking, and I also remember the awful effect that they had on me.
When I saw people write off recovering addicts — despite their years of work in recovery — it convinced me that it was better to deny my addiction than to acknowledge it. I talked myself into believing that I didn’t really have an alcohol problem, and that with time my heavy drinking might disappear on its own.
I decided it was better to ignore my alcoholism than to risk being branded as an undatable, unemployable, and unlovable addict for the rest of my life.
This denial fueled years of heavy, excessive drinking. The stigma surrounding addiction creates a culture of secrecy which ruins addicts’ lives.
The reason I’m written this response to the essay is because I want to remind people that addiction isn’t the end of the line. Many recovering addicts have built a happy new lives in sobriety, myself included.
I wish that I hadn’t let the shame of my addiction keep me from getting help for so long. I worried that getting sober would cause embarrassment, but it was actually a chance for me to leave my embarrassment behind.
Although there are some people who will write off all recovering addicts, there are many more who will provide support and understanding. Since getting sober, I’ve received plenty of support from both addicts and non-addicts alike. Long-term sobriety takes work, but it is absolutely possible, and it isn’t nearly as lonely as I feared it might be.