For too long, the stigma of addiction kept me in the closet. Society told me that I was an evil, weak and amoral person who wasn’t trying hard enough. That I was actively trying to hurt and destroy my family. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
I attempted to quit many times. Even when I felt compelled to use, I didn’t want to. It was my own personal hell; the addiction was truly in control of my body. I want to be clear. I am not an addict because of how I was raised, or because of my sexuality, or because I didn’t have enough willpower. I am an addict because I have the disease of addiction. No one deserves to be shamed for having a disease. Giving up that addiction was terrifying— getting sober is like grieving the loss of a best friend. My addiction was something that provided me comfort and familiarity. Letting go of that is terrifying.
According to Claire Rudy Foster, a recovering addict and writer for The Huffington Post:
There is a stigma attached to addiction which can be deadly. But it’s not my stigma — I stopped carrying that shame and embarrassment around years ago, if I ever felt it at all. I experience this stigma when I share my identity with people who aren’t addicts, who don’t know someone in recovery, or who hold onto the idea that people like me are somehow second class citizens. It’s not my stigma. It’s yours. And your ignorance and fear is a much greater risk to me than a relapse. Your problem with addiction is much more likely to kill me than my problem with it. It’s time to change the story about substance use disorder, and that doesn’t necessarily start with me. It starts with the story you’re telling yourself about me.
Even by writing this personal narrative, I place myself at risk. You see, even though I am in recovery, there is still a palpable stigma attached to my past addiction. I can again be shamed, avoided and rejected because of a disease over which I had no control. I’ve worked hard to become the best version of myself and to contribute wholeheartedly to the world. In addition to becoming a published writer, I’ve also had the opportunity to continue my education. I now work as a Substance Use Disorder Clinician, a career that affords me the opportunity to help addicts who are continually stigmatized and emotionally broken. Defining someone by their past addiction is one of the most repressive, limiting and vilifying things that we can do. It limits a person’s ability to change, evolve and recover.
The opioid epidemic––and drug addiction––will continue to be a problem at a societal level. Addiction is a massively systemic and woefully stigmatized problem. You wouldn’t shame a cancer patient for having cancer, would you? The only difference is that addiction is a disease where the symptoms are external and behavioral––the addict acts in a manner that has a devastating impact on the people around them.
Until we learn to destigmatize addiction, the disease will continue to ravage on an individual and societal basis. The best way to begin the de-stigmatization process is to embrace and empathize with a suffering addict. Maybe, just maybe, by attempting to understand their pain, you will give them hope and motivation to want to get better.