Our society has a consistent pattern when it comes to celebrity addiction. Mockery of the behaviors characteristic of addiction, shock by the tragic effects of addiction, and then judgments and often a lack of compassion. I have watched this all unfold with recent death of Whitney Houston. For years she has been the subject of ridicule due to her addiction. However, when she died, society was shocked. Facebook and Twitter were consumed with “RIP Whitney.” Slowly the toned started to change to one of judgments and blame. I read, “She did this to herself” and “What did Whitney and Apollo 13 have in common? A major crack problem.”
Society’s tendency to shame and blame people with addiction is caused by stigma. People tend to ignore the now accepted definition of addiction as a chronic, but treatable brain disease. In addition, people often don’t talk about addiction and the addiction of their loved ones despite how prevalent it is in our society. Most people ignore the fact that approximately 1 in 10 Americans abuse substances or are substance dependent. Or that 8.3 million children in the U.S. live with at least one parent who is in need of treatment for alcohol or drug dependency. Despite addiction being the number one public health problem we are facing today, the stigma of addiction keeps people from talking about it. But why is it important to talk about addiction and the powerful stigma associated with it? How does addiction and it’s stigma impact addicts and their loved ones?
What I have learned in the two plus years since I founded Gregg’s Gift, a not-for-profit dedicated to positively impacting the lives of addicted young adults, their families, and the community at large, is that the facts alone are not going to help break down the stigma of addiction. Addiction is a real problem that affects real people. And one of the biggest obstacles facing addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery is stigma.
Addiction is a brain disease. As a psychologist, I know this. But, when my brother was addicted, I struggled with fully accepting that addiction truly is a disease. This is a problem that many people have, due to the fact that the initial decision to use a substance is a choice. However, once dependency and addiction kick in, it is no longer a choice. Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change both the structure of the brain and how it works. These changes in the brain can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors.
I think the first time I started to really understand that my brother had a disease he could not control was the first time he relapsed. My heart broke for him because I knew how much he wanted to be in recovery. However, as an addict, his behavior made it very difficult to accept and love him unconditionally. I was angry. The loving, caring, and funny brother I had grown up with was gone. In his place was someone I didn’t recognize. I had difficulty, as many people do, separating the addict from the person. I now believe that it took my brother dying from an overdose at the age of 26 for me to fully accept that he was suffering from a horrible disease.
Dr. Raju Hajela, Past President of the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine, has stated, “The disease creates distortions in thinking, feelings and perceptions, which drive people to behave in ways that are not understandable to others around them.” I can attest that this is true both from my professional and personal experiences. The disease of addiction turned my brother into someone I didn’t know; someone he didn’t know. My brother’s addiction made him act in ways that made my family and I want to stay away from him. His addiction made him lie, steal, and manipulate his family and friends.
Stigma comes from the Greek words stig (tattoo) and ma (a suffix meaning resulting from an action). Taken together, stigma is a scar or mark resulting from one’s behaviors. In a medical or psychiatric context, it is the negative characteristic associated with an illness. When talking about stigma, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, notes that as humans we have a well-honed ability for branding the undesirable attributes of “others.” This natural tendency has evolved and persists for a reason: the definition of an outcast group helps society to define “normal” boundaries. However, this inclination can also result in damaging stigmas, which often translate into social and legal discrimination against people with addiction. This discrimination impedes both treatment and recovery.
The stigma of addiction leads those affected by addiction to experience shame. Stigma led our family to try to keep Gregg’s addiction a secret. We did this because we thought we were protecting Gregg, preserving his image in some way. We also did this to try to protect ourselves. However, this tendency to keep addiction a secret (a tradition deeply rooted in our society) conveys the message that addiction is something so terrible that it cannot be discussed. In turn, this reinforces the myths and stigma of addiction, which perpetuates a cycle of shame and blame for the addict and his or her loved ones.
I have chosen to publicize my story, even though this is often difficult to do, in an effort to raise awareness and help eliminate the stigma of addiction. I get emails from people all the time, through our website and on our Facebook page, talking to me about the struggles of their loved ones. I know the statistics, but hearing from all these people has reinforced in my mind the magnitude of this problem. There are so many people who are affected by the disease of addiction, and they deserve sympathy and support.
Learning and talking about addiction helps to raise awareness and break down the stigma associated with addiction. One way that you can help to do this is by trying not to judge people struggling with addiction. Remember that you are judging someone’s child, sibling, parent, spouse, relative, or friend. Also, try not to judge the family and friends of addicts. Addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer that can affect anyone.
On March 5, we are hosting our annual Comedy Night fundraiser. We have chosen to remember Gregg through laughter and love. The theme of the evening is Laugh Down the Stigma. As always, our event is a fun, sober night to help support those in recovery. For more information about the event please go to: http://www.caron.org/greggs-gift-2nd-annual-comedy-night-7325.html