Why Is There Such A Stigma Around Addiction?
Stigma: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
There is so much great work being done at the moment to reduce the stigma around addiction. Rethink Addictionand Addicted Australiaare just two examples of those challenging the current perceptions of addiction with great success. This work is so important, for while addiction is shrouded with shame and disgrace, we will never be able to confront the real causes of addiction and learn from the experiences of those who have battled and beaten this most evil of demons. Viewing people with addictions as bad people, undisciplined, selfish or weak does nothing but destroy any dignity the person has and makes it less likely that they will begin to be honest about their struggle and to seek help.
But to be effective in tackling the disgrace around addiction, we also need to understand where the stigma comes from. If, as I have argued, that addiction is a symptom of a greater distress, if it is a signal that a person has become separated from their amazing and unique spirit, why is it surrounded by so much shame? Why are addicts treated as criminals and outcasts? I think there are four explanations to this question.
1. It is because of what addicts do
Sometimes I get flashbacks of the horrible things I did to get a drink and the even more disgusting things I did after I had too many. There is no hiding the fact that the result of addiction is messy, embarrassing, confronting and downright burdensome for both the addict and those around them. Unfortunately, in the throes of addiction, some people also cross the line to dangerous and criminal activity. People don’t want a hassle and don’t want to be associated with people who are embarrassing. So they detach themselves and cast them away. It is certainly easier but depending on how deep the addiction has taken hold, it is also safer for the family and friends to be distant in some situations.
People become to associate the addict with their behaviours. So the person is exiled, if not physically, then sometimes mentally and emotionally. And yet, while I know it was me that did these horrible things, it was not truly me. I am not a person that would choose to harm others or put myself and others in danger. I know it wasn’t the real me that did these things. But it was the me operating within the scourge of addiction. So I must take responsibility and be held accountable for my behaviour.
Photo by thom masat on Unsplash
Because of the things addicts do, they come to be known as someone who is not to be trusted. They are trouble. Many people believe that because of their behaviours they don’t deserve the same respect as those with any other illnesses. This simplistic view confuses what people do with who they really are. It would be great if it was so black and white. It would be wonderful if we could just split people into the categories of good and bad. But I think we have all had too much life experience to know that this is not reflective of the complexity of our lives and the illogical nature of some of our behaviours.
Photo by Stéphane Fellay on Unsplash
2. It is viewed as a mental illness
We have seen in the previous chapter how addiction is categorised as a mental illness. And while it is helpful for diagnosis and treatment, it does not help ease the stigma around addiction. There are so many people doing so much great work to improve the understanding of and compassion for mental illness. Yet, people are still so uncomfortable with the notion. People who have mental illness are seen to be unstable, irresponsible, emotional, erratic, irresponsible and somehow ‘broken’. There is still a prevalent belief that people with mental illness are weaker than or have less resilience than those of us who are as yet unscathed (at least publicily). This view is not helpful for anyone trying to reconnect with their power, their strength. It only reinforces their sense of vulnerability.
3. The choice model prevails
While medical research has shown that choice goes out the window with addiction, there are still so many people that feel addiction is something that the addict has brought upon themselves. Many times they see the addict provided with lots of help, and yet still relapse. Often the relapse confirms in their mind that the addict does not want to get well and that they are choosing to continue down the path of self-destruction. They like to compare addiction with other diseases such as cancer, where the person with cancer is an obvious victim. In contrast, the addict is seen as the perpetrator of their suffering.
One can only hope with the increasing interest in neuroscience that this source of stigma may be removed and there may be more understanding of and compassion for the physiological changes that are driving the addict to continue the behaviour. Believe me, if you could have lived in my mind for just a few minutes you would understand that no-one would choose to be an addict. I remember it as a brutal and persistent torture.
4. Addiction exposes vulnerability
Why do we turn away when we see people suffering? Why do we look away from the homeless, the beggars, the drunks sleeping in doorways? The obvious answer is that we don’t want to see people in pain. That is understandable. But I think the explanation goes deeper. I think it is because when we see others suffering, it sheds light on our own pain and weakness that potentially we have been trying to hide.
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash
I know when I see a vagrant stumbling drunk down the street, I am reminded of how close I came to be in this same situation. This thought cuts deep and even after years of sobriety, the memory of how close I came really stings. I know I would love to be able to turn away and ignore the same lack of control I once displayed. I wish I could see this person without also seeing the hurt and destruction I caused in the past. But I can’t. When I see someone going through this moment of helplessness and hopelessness I am immediately haunted by my own vulnerability.
In this way I believe seeing someone addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling or the internet brings to light what we are most afraid of for ourselves. For example, could it be the case that when you see someone using drugs, their waste of life and potential reminds you of your struggles for meaning? Does it set of the alarms in your own heart about how your life lacks purpose or does it raise to the surface those deep whispers that you are not living up to your own amazing potential. Perhaps there could even be a hint of jealousy, anger or bitterness- why can they get to opt out when you still have to play the game and work within the real world? Why are they getting all of the attention and help when you are also hurting deeply and struggling to keep your head above water? Turning away and labelling the addicts as ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ is an effective way to create a separation between you and them. It allows you to maintain the façade that you are somehow different from this person who is suffering. It allows you to keep going about your day without further disruption and questioning of your own life direction and happiness.
Likewise, perhaps we turn a blind eye to excessive internet use because we have lost faith in our own ability to communicate create meaningful relationships. Given our busy lives we have enough problems of our own, we don’t really want to hear about other people’s. And so we leave them alone, and in turn remain alone. In your own heart you know that you are being complicit in this person’s separation from reality, but maybe that’s because you don’t have any conviction or love for your own. Confronting this behaviour and having critical conversations will mean you will need to face your own shortcomings and fears. It will require you to get up close and personal with what the problems they are looking to escape from, and the happiness they are lacking in your home environment. So, it is probably just easier to explain or excuse the behaviour then explore your own difficulties and the way you also seek to distract or numb out from them.
A very public example of this was the recent news of Tiger Woods acknowledgement of his addiction to sex . The once perfect role model was overnight transformed into a disgusting pervert. Fans and sponsors dumped him like a hot potato. Why? He was still an incredible sportsman — dedicated and professional. That side of his life had not changed at all. All of the connections appeared to be consensual, and so there was no physical or mental harm imposed by the man. So why was the judgement so harsh? Could it be that in Tiger we saw the possibility to achieve a perfect life? We thought that in this crazy world there was truly the ability to have it all and to be completely happy. In this way, when he fell from grace, so did we. We were reminded of our own human needs, our own desires and potentially our own lack of human connection. How dare he want more when he has everything already — he is so selfish! How dare he give into his need for pleasure when I can’t give into mine? He is just a spoilt brat! The pretence of perfection was squashed, and so we were left stranded in the reality of our own dissatisfaction. How dare he take away our hope? It is so much easier to shun Tiger Woods as a false Messiah than to admit our own human nature and discontent.
In each of these cases, it is easier to look away or to judge other people’s suffering because of the way it reminds us of our vulnerability. It is more comfortable for us to categorise addicts as bad , weak, selfish or narcissistic because it then creates a psychological distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. However, underneath the convenience of this approach lies anger and ignorance of the pain that we bring to these judgements. When in reality, it is likely that we share some of the same pain with these people. But we also forget that we share something brilliant and magnificent with these people as well — within them and us there is an amazing spirit. It has always been there for us and is calling to be let free and to be shared with the world.
We all can choose how we see those with an addiction, and all have a role to play in allowing stigma around addiction to continue. We can continue to see addicts as broken or lesser people, or we can choose to see the spirit within that is calling for help. As Sandra Ingerman says in her book ‘Walking in Light’ .
“You always have the choice to see others as ill or suffering, or in divine light and perfection.”
My hope for The Addiction Healing Pathway is to foster greater understanding and compassion for those suffering through addiction, and wherever possible, allow people to see through their behaviours to the unique and beautiful spirit underneath.
May you come to see yourself as a person worthy of kindness, compassion and love.
 Stern, A. (2010, February 20). Tiger Woods case puts spotlight on “sex addiction.” U.S. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-woods-addiction-idUSTRE61I61S20100219
 Ingerman, S. (2015). Walking in Light: The Everyday Empowerment of a Shamanic Life (First PB Edition, First Printing ed.). Sounds True.
Originally published at http://theaddictionhealingpathway.wordpress.com on February 1, 2021.