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Moving Past Stigma

shame- backlit figure

Stigma, by definition, means a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.

Stigma can also be defined as a “stain or reproach on one’s reputation. A set of negative and often unfair beliefs that society or a group of people have.”

In last week’s taping of our podcast “Coming Up for Air,” SUD family advocate and founder of The Addict’s Parents United (, Brenda Stewart was our guest. We dove into the topic of stigma. (Listen here)

Moving past stigma is a familiar, yet critically needed conversation.

Stigma is a powerful deterrent to treatment, recovery and hope. As we are all aware, the addiction crisis is not stopping or even slowing down. I believe stigma often stands in the way of progress.

There are more than 20 million Americans who have a substance use disorder and 12.5 million who reported misusing prescription painkillers in the last year. Opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled in the U.S. since 1999.

Looking at the statistics it’s clear that adding stigma, shame and disgrace to the struggle of addiction is not solving the problem. There has been enough shaming to go around, if it were helpful, the epidemic of addiction in this country would be getting significantly better.

So… can we just go ahead and put to rest the argument of whether addiction is a disease or not?

Addiction is a disease, a chronic relapsing disease. This has been proven and declared. In Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy’s report statements from November 17, 2016, he calls addiction a “chronic brain disease, not a moral failing.”

It’s also a cultural call to action.

To quote our Surgeon General directly:

“I’m calling for a cultural change in how we think about addiction,” Murthy told the Huffington Post. “For far too long people have thought about addiction as a character flaw or a moral failing. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency.”

My question is, how is it so many think they know better than the educated, medically-trained professionals?

We don’t need to run our mouths, but let’s use our voice.

“Shame loses its power when it’s spoken.” ~Brene Brown

The need for education against stigma still exists even within those who work in the medical field.

In our conversation with Brenda, I mentioned that I often can’t stomach the vitriolic, hate-filled comments I see on the social media announcements related to addiction and overdose stories. She then described how she observed one such comment from a nurse. She proceeded to take a screenshot of it, send it to the local hospital and ask when they would be educating their staff about the disease of addiction in case they are ever trusted to care for or treat one of her sons.

Steps like that draw attention, raise awareness and move the needle of progress.


“You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worth” ~Brene Brown

I personally hit a threshold with stigma by virtue of going through so much with family members who were struggling with this disease. After a while it no longer mattered what people might think or say. If someone is condemning, I know they are not only uneducated on the issues, but also mostly likely negative thinkers and quick to misjudge. And that’s their stuff to work out.

I opened up about our experience with dysfunction and addiction in my book “Unhooked” because I truly came to understand that addiction is a disease. A disease that has affected my family, changed the trajectory of our lives and left a trail of damage that took years to recover from. I know the pain and devouring a family goes through aside from stigma… how much worse it is when blame and shame are added. After receiving so much support, strength and healing it was an honor for us to share our story and let others know they are not alone. Together we can recover.

Addiction is not about good family versus bad family, or good versus bad parenting. That type of thinking is pollution. Yet still, those shaming thoughts exist and are often spewed in the direction of those who bear the weight of crisis already.

Sadly, until there is a personal experience or enough awareness raised, people will remain stuck in uninformed, unfair beliefs concerning the members of our families and communities who are afflicted with this disease. The fact is, disease drives the negative behavior we see resulting from active addiction, not moral code.

Stigma is nothing more than a barrier to treatment, recovery and hope.  Let’s move past it.

Steps we can take to reduce stigma:

– Become informed and educated

– Change our language concerning addiction and those who are suffering from it

– Show compassion instead of jumping to shame-based conclusions

The truth is, there are people I love with everything I am, who became addicted accidentally and innocently, by way of prescription. There are also people I love dearly who became addicted recreationally and foolishly, yet still accidentally. No one sets out to become addicted.

And if we're honest, most of us will make a few reckless, foolish decisions that cost us in other ways. That’s life. We’re human. Humanity is messy, complicated and imperfect. I’m no longer as concerned with how addiction occurred. I’m concerned with progress and recovery for families who are suffering through the hell of having a Loved One captive to this disease.

“What’s really at stake here are our family and friends,” Surgeon General Murthy has said. “Addiction is not a disease that discriminates and it has now risen to a level that it is impacting nearly everyone.”

At some point we have to realize an epidemic of addiction is happening in our communities, regardless of where the blame belongs. The crisis is here either way—we are a nation that is hurting.

Shaming adds no solution. Families and communities are being swept over by the epidemic of addiction and people are dying as the argument rages on. It’s time to rebuild the ruins with compassion, understanding and treatment, instead of arguing over how the devastation might be deserved.


While it’s often true that we can’t understand something until it’s happened to us personally, we can however still extend compassion in place of personal understanding.

The State of Massachusetts has a great campaign called State without Stigma (#StatewithoutstigMA) that involves taking a pledge to perceive addiction as a disease and includes a promise to embrace those in need by showing compassion.  

I’m a big believer in not kicking people when they’re down. If I see someone trapped in a ditch, there’s no need for me to shame them for how they got there. Chances are, they’re already ashamed of it.

What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.” ~Brene Brown

Let’s not add shame to those already suffering. How about if instead, we become the society without stigma.

Together we can recover,


Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.


Please take a moment to view this short commercial that powerfully demonstrates a better way to perceive the disease of addiction:



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. Hello, I have been clean for 30+ years from a Herion addiction. I believe the use of the term “chronic relapse” just adds to the stigma of the disease it also provides a built in excuse to continue to use/relapse. I know a lot of addicts with long term clean time. They have not relapsed in years. Most of us were told this at some point in our addiction that we were chronic relapsers. I want to tell you all that the LIE is DEAD. We do recover One Day at a Time.

    Share the Hope


    1. Dear mcrickd, I am so encouraged when I hear of someone in long time recovery – 30 years is an amazing accomplishment!! Your recovery offers great hope to those who suffer with the fear that their loved one might never live a life outside of active addiction. It is absolutely possible and doable! My son has had a length of time as well, six years so far. We are beyond thrilled at the ability to breathe and relax after those dark times. I do believe a permanent life of freedom is possible for him, but if he does relapse we have tools in place, along with belief and hope that he can get well again and keep making progress. Whether one stumbles into a relapse setback or not, the love and support of family in recovery is a powerful ally. Thank you so much for sharing, best wishes to you as you continue to succeed!