The memory of my brother that morning is burned in my mind even though it’s been 20 years since addiction took his life in 2015. He was white as a ghost when he showed up at my apartment as I was getting ready to take him to a recovery center.
“Are you ok?” I asked as he sat down. “No…no I’m not,” he said.
Then he fell on the floor and began convulsing. At the time I had no idea what was happening to him. In a panic I dialed 911. Not too long after the paramedics arrived. I was surprised by their aloof and judgmental reaction. You see my brother was detoxing from alcohol which is what caused him to seizure. Something I later learned could have killed him. To those responders he represented another stain on society, taking up their time when people were out there with real diseases who needed help. Besides, if he wanted to quit, he could have, right?
Even though nearly 100,000 people die from addiction in this country each year, there is still an overwhelming assumption that if they wanted to quit, they would. The stigma surrounding addiction also assumes people who die from an overdose must have willingly made that choice.
When we were kids my brother and I used to talk about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Becoming an addict and drifting from institutions to jails to homelessness and ultimately death somehow never made the list.
When someone is sick cards, flowers, well wishes, and meals are sent. My mother used to tell me in all the years my brother struggled prior to his death, no one ever sent her a card or flowers. Families of addicts often suffer alone and so do the addicts.
After he died there was no funeral. He had been homeless on and off for years. Who would we have invited? My parents keep his ashes in a jar next his picture. They don’t go out much. We don’t talk about it much either.
Sometimes I’m invited to speak at events and will be asked what topics I cover. If I mention addiction there is usually silence on the other end of the phone.
“Of course, that might be too specialized,” I offer to relieve the awkwardness and then we move on to ‘safer’ topics.
Every person I have ever met has been touched by addiction. As I mentioned above, nearly 100,000 people die of addiction or overdose each year in this county. So why on earth does no one want to talk about it? The reason is because there is still tremendous stigma, misconception, misunderstanding, and just plain ignorance surrounding addiction. In addition, addicts are often looked down upon and blamed for their problem. It is assumed they suffer from a moral dilemma rather than a health issue. Obviously, the stigma is increased by the erratic behavior and sometimes criminal activity committed by addicts under the influence.
The guilt and shame from being stigmatized prevent many people from reaching out for help. Sadly, they often try to hide their addiction and suffer alone in silence, further escalating their shame. Even worse, stigma in the medical and mental health profession is another barrier to effective treatment available to those who suffer.
How to Remove the Stigma
The only way to save lives and reduce death from overdose and addiction related complications in this country is to reduce the stigma associated with addiction. Below are some ways you can help do this:
- Understand that addiction is a progressive disease. It is a health issue that will only worsen if it is not treated.
- Learn about addiction and how it effects the body and brain over time. Check out the previous blog: “This is Your Brain on Drugs” to find out more about this.
- Talk about it. If you know someone suffering from addiction do not ignore it. Ask them how they are and if they are getting help. If you know someone impacted by addiction, ask them how they are doing too.
- Support the various forms of recovery and recovery services. While abstinence programs work for some people, there are others, especially those suffering from opioid addiction, who need medication-assisted treatment like what we offer here at The Life Change Center.
- Offer compassion and support to those suffering with addiction, when possible, while maintaining solid boundaries.
- Avoid harmful labels and assumptions.
- Don’t judge family members of addicts or immediately assume they contributed to the problem. While this may be true sometimes, addiction often has a genetic component.
- Don’t shame individuals suffering from addiction as shame perpetuates the cycle and tends to keep them in the dark.
- Encourage them to seek treatment and offer resources. You may be the reason they seek help, and you could save their life.
Remember that addiction is an illness. The pain it causes those suffering and their families is often indescribable. Not everyone recovers, but many do recover every day when they are offered compassion, support, and help.