Those of us who have lived through an addiction, or are currently dealing with one, know what our biggest enemy is, and that is stigma. We talk about it all the time. We complain about the way people judge us, the way those on the outside don’t understand addiction, and the lack of support from everyone from our families and friends to the government. We are angered by the perceptions people have about us and our family members who are in active addiction or recovery. They don’t know who we really are, that we are good people from good families and that this can happen to anyone. But then we feed it.
We feed it by whispering among ourselves. We feed it by hiding our status or our loved one’s status as an addict once we get established in recovery. We don’t tell people about our history, like it never happened. Parents don’t talk to other parents, unless their kids are also affected. We stay isolated among ourselves and we feed this stigma that we then complain about.
We cannot wait for others to one day wake up and change their minds about how they perceive addicts. The only way people’s perceptions change is when they come into contact with someone who alters their reality surrounding addiction. We have to be those people.
It’s our job to advocate for a change in the way the world views us. When someone loses their battle, and succumbs to a fatal overdose, it is their family’s job to honor their battle by being honest about how they died. When we say a 23 year old with a known drug problem “died suddenly” with no explanation, the world knows what happened and they know you are hiding. That tells people that you are ashamed of your child and how they died, whether that is true or not. That is the message you are sending. That is the perception you give people when you fail to tell the truth. If they died of any other disease, you would acknowledge it. Obituaries are a way for us to acknowledge the fight, and how powerful addiction is when we lose that fight. They are also a way for us to draw attention and donations to organizations that may have served us during our struggle.
Once you or your child gets established in long term recovery, this is an ideal time to wave your addict flag. Because this is the time where you are showcasing an addict at their best. You are showing what can happen when recovery is realized. You are showing people that there is hope, and that this disease can be treated and can be overcome. When you decide the bury the struggle you and your family have just conquered, how are you helping the next family? How are you reducing the stigma that you are so upset about?
When your child is out there in their addiction, and people ask you about them, tell the truth. When you are embarrassed of your child and their truth, what does that say to your child? That you are ashamed. That you are hiding them and their addiction. If they had cancer, how different would the situation be? You would be seeking the best treatment you could find, you would be asking everyone you knew for their thoughts and prayers, and the people in your life would rally around you with concern and support.
People don’t know how to act in these situations because when we are hiding, we are sending the message to the people in our life that we are ashamed and we don’t want to acknowledge what is going on. It can be scary to come out with the truth, because people don’t know how to act or respond. It’s our job to teach them. Then they can teach others. Eventually, we begin to change how people regard addiction and we begin to reduce the stigma. If the people in your life are too caught up in their own ideas about addiction, and they can’t bring themselves to support you, then you should seriously consider their role in your family’s life. It may take some time, and some education, to help bring them around, and that is okay. Don’t complain that they don’t understand, because it is our job to teach them and educate them so that they can come to at least appreciate what you’re going through, even if they never truly “understand”.
We need to be vocal about our struggles and proud of our accomplishments.
We need to teach the world around us about this disease, and how to support us while we’re going through it. When we ask an addict not to talk about their disease, especially when they are in early recovery, we are invalidating them as a person because their disease becomes their entire life at that stage. If they have just come from treatment, if they are fresh in recovery, their recovery is their WHOLE LIFE right now. For some of us, even years later, it remains a significant part of our lives. When we are asked not to acknowledge it, we are being asked to hide. No one would ever ask a cancer patient not to talk about their disease, their treatment, and their recovery. The disease of addiction is just as pervasive, just as all consuming, and just as fatal as cancer.
When a classmate of mine was battling cancer a few years ago, he told me something I will never forget. He said that he wouldn’t trade places with me, because he couldn’t imagine being blamed for the disease that was trying to kill him.
When it comes to the stigma surrounding addiction, those of us who are affected are on the front lines. We need to be proud of who we are, and what we deal with. If we want there to be a change in the public perception, then we need to get loud and get proud about our circumstances. You are your best advocate. If you want to see a change, BE that change. If you want there to be no stigma, then we need to teach people to know more about us and the war we are fighting each and every day.
©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin