“Addiction Is a Disease That Thrives in The Dark”: A Younger Sister’s Plea For an End to Fear and Shame

Sam Fowler and her parents spent many years hiding her brother’s substance use disorder (SUD) from the world. The experience convinced Sam that openness, and even vulnerability, are better choices.

As a family, the Fowlers felt something many of us will understand, whether we have Loved Ones with SUD or not. They were afraid of what others would think. They feared that one word, addition, would indelibly change how people thought and treated them.

“Having that stigma and thinking we were going to be viewed as a bad family made us want to stay hidden,” she explains in this TED Talk from 2018. But over time, Sam began to question this strategy. “Maybe the reason we wanted my brother to be anonymous was not to save him, but to save ourselves.”

The more she learned about addiction, and the more she observed the struggle of her older brother, the less she felt that shame and fear were warranted. Much of her change in perspective, she states, involved learning to see substance use disorder for what it is—a disease—and not a moral or a family failure. “I’m here to tell you: we were raised the same way,” she says. “It could have easily been me who became an addict, and that I just equate to luck. Sometimes it’s not about a traumatic event or having a bad family. It is a disease inside your brain.”

Her address begins as a personal story, but it ends with a wider challenge. Anonymity, she argues, often seems to be the whole country’s first instinct when it comes for SUD. It’s even built into the names of the largest support organizations in the country. “Why?” she asks simply. “Do we think that this helps?” For Sam and her family, anonymity is a thing of the past. “I am not afraid of addiction anymore,” she says, “And I am certainly not ashamed of my brother.”

This brief talk comes straight from the heart. There’s no doubt Sam’s family has been through great challenges together. But it’s brought them wisdom, strength, and togetherness. And that is something to be proud of.