Stigma is an ugly word. Sure, it’s like any other word in the English language – devoid of emotional meaning unless you have experienced it firsthand – but its ugliness isn’t limited to experience. Stigma denotes human judgment and suffering. Merriam Webster defines stigma as “a mark of shame or discredit : STAIN”. To be stigmatized, therefore, is to be shamed, discredited, and stained.
People with substance use disorder are stigmatized by society as a matter of course – and in ways that are profoundly disturbing. If you make the mistake of reading the comments on any addiction recovery related post or news article, dozens of people call for the death of those with substance use disorder. While families grieve the loss of loved ones, these commentators gleefully celebrate: “Good,” they write. “They’ve done us a favor”. Any discussion surrounding the overdose resuscitation drug, Narcan, invariably leads to these same individuals rallying around cruelty: “Let the junkies die,” they declare.
Sadly, these misinformed keyboard bullies don’t care about the brain science behind substance use disorder, nor do they care about the ways in which those who are recovering from addiction contribute to society. Many of our staff members, for example, live openly in addiction recovery. What would the world be like without our contributions? For starters, our addiction treatment center wouldn’t exist. There would also be less love, compassion, kindness, helpfulness, creativity, and joy. Anyone who has lost their battle with the disease of addiction had the same qualities within them – and anyone who is currently struggling has the capability to lead a beneficial life. Cruelty toward people with substance use disorder is, in essence, stealing from society.
Stigma is not an easy topic to discuss. It is acutely painful for those who experience it – and equally uncomfortable for responsible parties to examine and correct. Stigma becomes even more dangerous when people are unaware they are perpetuating it. One example of this is when people in addiction recovery stigmatize themselves and each other.
Wait, What? How People In Recovery Perpetuate Stigma:
It’s pretty easy to identify stigmatizing behavior when you catch someone name calling or bullying in an online forum, but how does stigma transpire within the addiction recovery community itself? One way we perpetuate stigma is the way we speak to ourselves. This is called self-stigmatizing talk. Self-stigmatizing talk often manifests as a label we put on ourselves. These labels may originate at home or in society, but we accept, maintain, and internalize them. We give away our power. Some examples of self-stigmatizing talk are:
“I’m just a drug addict. No one cares about me.”
“I’m a heroin addict so I am a terrible parent”.
“I am a burden and an inconvenience”.
Just a drug addict. Terrible parent. Burden. Inconvenience. These labels are gut wrenching and, yet, tragically common.
Another way we can perpetuate stigma within the addiction recovery community is by playing the comparison game. For example, someone with an alcohol use disorder may consider themselves superior to someone with an opioid use disorder. Both opioids and alcohol are addictive substances with the power to change brain functioning. In other words, comparison is a baseless activity. There’s an old saying that goes, “a drug is a drug is a drug”. Similarly, people in addiction recovery often compare recovery programs: “N.A. is better than A.A.” or “Wait…you go to SMART Recovery? Those meetings are nonsense!” or “You’re not sober if you use medication assisted maintenance!”
Why is Stigma Even a Thing?
There are no complex answers to be found here. The bottom line is that stigma is fear in disguise. Stigma, at its core, is fear driven separation. For people who don’t understand substance use disorder, perpetuating stigma is a way of staying aloft. Separation and superiority equal safety. It’s comforting to think, “I’m better than you. That will never happen to me”. Stigma is also about the fear of not being enough – and this is more common within the addiction recovery community itself. People are afraid they’re not good enough – especially when they are grappling with their own substance use disorder – and it can feel good to cut others down. At the end of the day, judgement is always about self-judgement. The perceived flaws we point out in others are the characteristics we fear in ourselves.
How Do We Eliminate Stigma?
One of the things we teach families at our addiction treatment center is, “you can’t change your loved one. You can only change yourself and your response”. A similar concept applies to stigma. It hurts… but none of us have the power to change the hearts and minds of people engaged in cruelty and stigmatizing behavior. Hate only adds fuel to the fire. However, we can examine our own hearts and evaluate where we might unwittingly be contributing to the problem. We are not victims. We have the power to change. Maybe someone told us we weren’t good enough, but we are not required to continue living that message. Personal growth is always the answer. The less judgment we feel toward ourselves, the more accepting we are of others.
If stigma is about fear, we have to be comfortable meeting our so-called “dark sides” with compassion. In reality, “dark-side” isn’t even an accurate descriptor, especially because substance use disorder deals with a disease rather than a moral failing. We are not dual entities split by darkness and light. We are whole beings. When we accept our own humanity, we encounter the humanity in others with love rather than fear.
Stigma is essentially a fearful reaction to our own delicate, fallible, beautiful humanity.
One of the greatest protestations we hear is, “How does this solve the larger problem at hand?” Well, the most effective way to lead is by example. People who accept themselves and others, and who are comfortable in their own skin, radiate a magnetic energy. The question you have to ask is, “Do I want to magnetize fear or love?”
Autumn Khavari is the Process Recovery Center’s in-house writer. She received an education in Substance Use Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.