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Moving Past Stigma

Allies in Recovery, AiR, Dominique Simon Levine, Addiction, addiction recovery, stigma, shame, ashamed, disease, state without stigma, Annie Highwater, Brene Brown, healing, Unhooked
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.

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

“I’m calling for a cultural change in how we think about addiction. 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.”   -Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

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

Let’s use our voices and talk openly about it

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

The need for education against stigma still exists even among those who work in the medical field. In our conversation with Brenda, I mentioned how I can’t stomach the vitriolic, hate-filled comments I see on social media regarding addiction and overdose stories. She described how she read one such comment from a nurse. So she took a screenshot of it and sent it to the local hospital. She then asked 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 while going through so much with family members who were struggling with this disease. After a while it no longer mattered what people thought or said. If someone is condemning, I know they are not only uneducated on the issues, they are most likely negative thinkers and quick to misjudge. But that’s their stuff to work out.

Opening up about my personal experience

I opened up about our experience with dysfunction and addiction in my book “Unhooked” because I came to understand that addiction is a disease. It is 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 getting so much support, strength and healing it was an honor for us to share our story. I wanted to let others know that they are not alone and that together we can recover.

Addiction is not about good family versus bad family, or good parenting 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  of addiction or enough awareness raised, people will remain stuck in uninformed and unfair beliefs. The fact is, the disease drives the negative behavior. This is not who they are.

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

No one sets out to become addicted

There are people I love with everything I am, who became addicted accidentally and innocently, by way of prescription. There are also those I love dearly who became addicted recreationally and foolishly, yet still accidentally.

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 lies. The crisis is here either way—we are a nation that is hurting.

Shaming adds no solution. Families and communities are being swept away by the epidemic of addiction and people are dying as the argument rages on. Instead of arguing over whether the devastation might be deserved, we need to rebuild with compassion, understanding and treatment,

Let’s become a society without Stigma

While it’s often true that we can’t understand something until it’s happened to us personally, we can however extend compassion in the absence of personal understanding.   The State of Massachusetts has a great campaign called State without Stigma (#StatewithoutstigMA) that involves taking a pledge to recognize 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,



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

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