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Stigma and Secrets: Road Blocks to Recovery

Family members are profoundly affected by a loved one’s addiction. In the US approximately 15.1 million adults age 18 and older have an Alcohol Use Disorder, and that figure does not include adolescents ages 12 to 17. Moreover, another 21 million wrestle with substance abuse (while only 10 % of them receive treatment). Addiction is not a one person affair. Millions of loved ones become caught in its insidious web of deception, denial, and danger.

Families challenged by addiction are wounded and weary. They experience negative feelings and emotions which block the road to recovery. A major road block is the stigma of addiction. It fuels shame which feeds on secrets, silence, and judgment.

Stigma is one of the most problematic aspects of addiction because it makes it difficult for individuals and families to deal with their problems and get help. Many still believe that addiction is a character flaw or weakness even when they are faced with scientific evidence that addiction is a treatable disease with millions in long-term recovery (link) Dr. Richard Juman writes, “ So despite widespread agreement that addiction is best understood as a complicated behavioral-biological scenario that requires treatment, the system is hard-wired to prolong stigmatization, and stigma contributes to addiction’s lethality” (link). Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff at the University of California at Berkeley offers an explanation for this disconnect. He writes that , “people assess the evidence presented to them through a framework of preexisting beliefs and prejudices…” (National Geographic Magazine, “Why We Lie,” June, 2017).

Stigma contributes to the social and legal discrimination against people with addictions. For example, a recent New York Times editorial describes how Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin wants to be the first governor in the nation to allow his state to mandate the drug screening of childless individuals who apply for Medicaid help. “Jon Peacock, research director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, warns that such a trend would be “an extremely negative development because it treats drug addiction as a moral failing rather than a disease.”

Shame. (“I am bad.”) Molly a long-term member of my recovery group for loved ones kept her husband’s drinking a secret during the many years of their marriage. Imagine what it must been like to raise four children trying to ignore the elephant in the house day by day and year by year. Like many others, Molly internalized the stigma that addiction made her family too weak and unworthy to do anything about it. She believed that her family would be judged as seriously flawed. Also she worried that telling the truth could result in the loss of her husband’s job or medical insurance. Eventually she found the courage to join a loved ones' group whose members shared her experience and listened without judgment.

Author, Scott Russell Sanders writes about his family’s secret (link).

“Father’s drinking became the family secret. While growing up, we children never breathed a word of it beyond the four walls of our house. To this day, my brother and sister rarely mention it, and then only when I press them…Recently, on the seventh anniversary of my father’s death. I asked my mother if she ever spoke of his drinking to friends. “No, no, never,” she replied hastily. “I couldn’t bear for anyone to know.”

Language also plays a part in perpetuating the stigma. Consider words that are used to describe victims of substance abuse: meth heads, junkies, crack heads, winos, alcoholics, dope-fiends, acid-heads, trippers, druggie, pill poppers and dead-beats. Addicts are spaced out, strung out, wasted and toasted.

Educate yourself by learning why there are negative perceptions of addition in the first place (link). Don’t allow stigma and secrets prevent you from seeking help. Millions in recovery have done just that.

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