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The Misunderstood Society: Breaking The Stigma Of Addiction

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I read a fantastic blog article this week, shortly after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, entitled, Addiction, Mental Health and a Society That Fails to Understand Either. In case you haven’t read it yet, you absolutely should. Several of my colleagues and friends agree that it’s probably one of the best articles that we’ve read in recent times, addressing the disease of addiction and the associated stigma.

You may have noticed it becoming a more frequent occurrence – media coverage of celebrities getting caught up in ridiculous events and legal issues (think Justin Bieber’s current marijuana and prescription drug troubles), or in some cases, a celebrity dies as a direct result of drug or alcohol addiction. As I write, the most recent celebrity to suffer this fate being Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Whereas the deaths of celebrities bring the deadly consequences of drug and alcohol abuse into the spotlight, I think it’s critically important to note that they’re not the only ones suffering and ultimately paying the price for the strength of their untreated disease.

And yes, drug and alcohol addiction is a disease. It is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit.

“I want to be a junkie!” – said no one, ever.

That’s like exclaiming, “I want to die from cancer!” which was also said by no one, ever.

Addiction, like cancer, chooses you. You don’t have a say in when, where, how, or why.

The Overwhelming Reality of Addiction

According to SAMHSA, over 22 million Americans reportedly abuse alcohol or drugs. What if those people got the help they deserved to treat the disease that they suffer with daily?

At The Watershed, we receive well over 10,000 unique calls every month from addicts, alcoholics, or their loved ones, who are desperately looking for treatment. It’s encouraging to know that we’re able to accommodate several hundred of those callers every month by bringing them to our treatment facilities in Florida or Texas, and providing them with the treatment they so desperately need.

But what about the other thousands upon thousands of individuals who are still in need, but unwilling or unable to travel or afford private addiction treatment?

One of the many reasons I am proud to work for The Watershed, is our dedication to making sure that we provide telephonic interventions and treatment resources to every individual who calls looking for help – whether or not they can come to The Watershed. We want them to get help somewhere – now – while they still have the gift of desperation; that little voice screaming for help and hope. As far as I am aware, most other treatment centers are unwilling or unable to provide such a service. From my vantage point, most just don’t care.

But, even though we take the extra step to provide an entire Resource department, equipped to provide treatment program options local to the individual in need, complete with phone numbers, websites, meetings, and other resources for those who can’t or won’t come to our facilities; even though we follow up for weeks on end, making sure they continue to pursue treatment options; we are all still painfully aware that our voice could be the last one they hear.

The disease of addiction is strong, and when it feels threatened, it’s especially deadly. I envision the disease as a voice screaming, “If I can’t have you, then no one can!” over, and over, and over, and over… drowning out all other voices of hope and healing.

Every single day, we learn of individuals who didn’t make it – addiction won; sometimes within hours of our last phone conversation. Sometimes, the deadly reality of this disease makes it hard to remain positive. To keep the hope alive, we must focus on those lives that we helped to save – one day at a time.

I’m very proud of the fact that The Watershed has treated over 40,000 people in just less than 16 years. It’s amazing to think about how we have been able to impact the lives of so many.

Not impressed? Want something more amazing?

There are over 24 million individuals living in long-term recovery in this country. Wow.

That tells me there are a lot people more people than I had realized who, one way or another, have found a new life, free from drugs and alcohol.

That’s a lot of hope. A lot of hope I didn’t know existed until I researched it, and watched a great documentary called The Anonymous People.

But where are these 24 million people in long-term recovery? What if they spoke up about the joy of a life in recovery, and what if we could double that number? What if we could break the stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction, paving the way for more and more people to get help? What if those 24 million Americans felt comfortable speaking openly about the joys of a life in recovery, and encouraging others to seek the help they deserve, so they, too, can live a better life!

C’mon Folks – It’s Time to Break the Stigma

I haven’t always worked in addiction treatment, nor can I recall being overly exposed to addiction or alcoholism for the majority of my life growing up in the Midwest. Heck, I even lived virtually around the corner from Hazelden for years, and had absolutely no clue that it even existed. I didn’t really know what recovery was; my only “exposure” being a few movie scenes depicting 12 Step meetings.

My perception since childhood was that an “addict” fits the commonly held stigma of the homeless guy living under the bridge, begging for money to fuel his habit. There’s so many things I didn’t know, it’s mind-boggling to me now.

I didn’t know that 13 years old is the average age that most addicts and alcoholics began using.

I didn’t know how easily accessible prescription drugs, heroin, meth, etc. really are… to anyone.

I didn’t consider that a few of those friends who I went to college with who drank daily might actually have a problem. That maybe they weren’t choosing to go through life drunk.

I didn’t know that the average addict or alcoholic is not a homeless troll, but is actually your neighbor, friend, or loved one who is trying desperately to keep life together in a delicate balancing act until one day, it all just falls apart. And then those falling pieces just keep rolling downhill, destroying everything in their path.

I didn’t know that addiction wants the person and the body it possesses to die.

“Addicts” are something our parents warned us about, and told us to steer clear of them. And I guess for the people who “lucked out” and don’t suffer from the disease of addiction, they go about their daily lives, assuming that everyone who doesn’t “look like an addict” is “normal”.

The reality is that a significant percentage of those millions upon millions of people living in long term recovery are living their recovery joyously, but not publicly. The reality is that those millions of people can’t talk openly about their addiction or recovery without the quizzical stares and judgments. The reality is that the hope for a better life isn’t as easily communicated to another who is trying so hard to suffer quietly and in the dark for fear of judgment and shame.

Why is it so stinkin’ hard to talk about addiction and recovery? Why do so many people cringe at the words “addiction” or “addict”?

Because our society long ago built a, “Don’t ask; don’t tell,” stigma around addiction. If you don’t talk about it, you don’t have it. And if you don’t have it, you’re accepted by your friends, family, and your career or job isn’t in jeopardy.

This stigma further fuels the crippling fear that keeps so many addicts and alcoholics suffering silently.

Breaking the Stigma: The Truth Is…

“Chances are that someone you know is addicted to drugs right now; you just may not realize it.

Or you do know, but you hide their addiction because of the social stigma.

Or you don’t hide it, but you shame them instead.

Or you don’t shame them, but you slowly phase them out of your life because you don’t want to be around them anymore or because you just can’t do it anymore.

Or you keep them around, but talk about them behind their backs, discuss how sad it is that they refuse to get help, vow to be better than they are.”

Or they do try to get help and sometimes they get better for a while.

Or they relapse and die.”

-Quote from the Author of DeBie Hive Blog, “Addiction, Mental Health and a Society That Fails to Understand Either

What if we weren’t ashamed of those addicts and alcoholics in our lives, but tried to help them instead? What if we tried loving them until they learned to love themselves?

To clarify, I’m not saying go out and buy drugs to enable a habit, or conversely, force someone into rehab. What I am saying, is that most addicts and alcoholics use drugs and drink to hide; to drown out the fear of not being accepted; to push down those feelings of inadequacy; to just get through the day. It may seem a simple task to just muddle through daily life for most people, but to someone suffering from the disease of addiction, life is too complicated, stressful, and/or driven by fear to deal with it all clean and sober.

What if our love overpowered their fear, and your fear, too?

Have you ever wondered, like I have, what if those brilliant, drug addicted individuals searching for a better high, who construct such delicate chemical concoctions such as methamphetamines and bath salts, turned their attentions to the cure for cancer. Maybe we’d already have a cure for it, and who knows what other diseases.

This long lasting stigma, which prevents millions of individuals in need of treatment from getting help because of the fear of being pushed out of social groups, losing their jobs, or simply being shunned or shamed by family and loved ones needs to be broken.

The idea of the “homeless addict living under the bridge” isn’t accurate; your typical drug addict is actually the guy next door who has a family and a career… all precariously balanced, and slowly ruining their loved ones lives the longer they wait to get help.

If you know, but haven’t acknowledged the addict or alcoholic in your life, it’s time to love them – show them you care; that you want to help them get to a better place; that they’re not the social outcast who has no hope, just like that voice in their head keeps telling them – over, and over, and over; louder, and louder, and louder.

If you’re suffering from addiction, know that there are people out there who understand, and who want to love you until you can love yourself. Recovery is a reality for you, and you are most certainly worth it!

Rest in peace Philip Seymour Hoffman, and all of the other addicts and alcoholics who have died too soon from this terribly powerful disease, and the social stigma that keeps them from getting help before it’s too late.

Written by Beth J. (Watershed Beth)




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