Stigma

The House That Addiction Built

Addiction is like the house on a nice street that used to look so beautiful on the outside. Over the past few years, it has become dilapidated, worn down, tarnished. The lawn and gardens are overgrown and full of weeds. The shutters have fallen off the windows, and if you think the outside is bad, you should see what’s going on inside. The family and friends of an addict are the neighboring homes. Their houses still look nice, put together, habitable, but by virtue of living next door to a war zone disguised as a house, their property values fall alongside it.

Addiction affects every single person who comes in contact with the addict. Just like no one wants to be a drug addict, no one sets out with that goal in mind, even more so the people who love that addict certainly never signed up for this life. We drag our friends and family into our uphill battle, and they become broken down, bruised, and worn out right along side us.

Worse still is what happens when one of us loses our battle with the disease. The city comes and knocks down the vacant house, but nobody is able to exorcize the ghosts that live there. Our family and friends will never escape the memories that haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Coming off of another overdose death of a friend, I am exasperated. I am horrified. I am distraught. I am powerless. I am frustrated that nothing I am doing is enough, or will ever be enough, to save everyone. And for every addict I reach, every person whose life is changed, there are thousands of people who will never recover. They will die before they ever have the chance to recover.

I am conflicted deeply about these deaths, as they continue to come like a train that’s off its schedule. We know they are coming, we just don’t know when the grim reaper will show up again to steal another soul away from us. On the one hand, if we weren’t losing all of these incredible sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, I don’t think anyone would even care about this epidemic. We’ve been talking about it for over a decade, and it’s only been in the most recent years that “good kids” are dying that suddenly people want to show concern. On the other hand, how many good people have to lose their lives before we see real change?

The opioids are killing us, but so is the stigma. The stigma is the station that the grim reaper’s train rolls into. If there were no stigma, I personally believe there would be significantly less death.

The stigma is what keeps me from reaching out to a struggling addict, because they won’t admit they are struggling. Even if I ask someone directly how are they doing, are they staying clean, they will lie. There is stigma even amongst ourselves, between who is clean, who is on methadone, who is doing it the “right way”. When someone has been doing well and they fall off, they are so ashamed to admit that they, again, need help. We are told not to associate with people who are using when we’re clean, so we cut them out and blacklist them instead of checking in and offering support. I get it, we all have to protect our own sobriety. But when I look at someone who is using, at this stage in my recovery, the last thing I want to do is join them.

My heart breaks for the desperation they are feeling. For the guilt and the shame, and the pain they are in. The struggle is very real and it never, ever, EVER goes away. No matter how much sober time we have, it never goes away. It’s not something you can put behind you and forget about. It’s not something you can pretend never happened. Some days it’s a tiny mouse on a wheel, turning in your brain in the background. Some days, it’s the elephant, its silence getting louder and louder while it takes up the entirety of your mind. You try to push it out. You try to send it back to the circus. But your life is the circus now. You are stuck in the middle of the center ring and some days the monkey is on your back, and some days you are the monkey.

I imagine that scene in the Little Mermaid where Ariel signs her voice away to Ursula, and then is forced to watch in painful silence as what should have been her life unfolds in front of her. That’s sort of what it’s like. You watch your friends and peers grow and find their way, while you drag yourself around the same worn and beaten path until you wind up in jail, an institution, or you lose the fight and you die.

And if addiction is the dilapidated house on a nice street, then heaven must be the most beautiful mansion any of us have ever seen. I imagine every soul that we have lost coming out on to the lawn, arms out stretched to greet the newest resident as they arrive. Tupac talked about “Thugs Mansion”, where he imagined all of the gang bangers and G’s would go when they died. “Ain’t no heaven for a thug”, he rapped. I picture Addict’s Mansion the same way.

“Dear Mama, don’t cry, your baby boy’s doing good. Tell the homies I’m in heaven and they ain’t got hoods.” -Tupac

Instead I imagine a place where they are no drugs, no needles, no earthly struggles. We don’t need to use because all of our problems evaporated the minute we left our old lives behind. We don’t have a void, that hole we talk about, that we need to constantly fill with narcotics, then food, then shopping, then gambling. That hole seems to always be there. I’ve been emptying mine out for years now, and it’s amazing how much shit can fit into that hole. People talk about finding good and positive things to fill it with. I picture it more like a stomach that stretches to accommodate all the garbage we shove inside it. And just like when someone has bariatric surgery, and their stomach is cut into a much smaller hole, I believe that the hole needs to shrink until there is nothing left. I don’t want to fill the hole with positive things, I want to eliminate the hole and never have to worry about how full it is and the quality of its contents.

I like to think when we arrive at Addict’s Mansion, that hole vanishes. We are finally free and at peace. Our addictions leave us and we don’t need to use drugs to feel whole and complete because in heaven there is nothing but wholeness and completion. That’s where my friends are today. Sitting around a bonfire, shooting the shit, remembering the good times and feeling free from all the bad times.

There are roads in my town that I stopped driving down after some friends passed away, because I couldn’t handle it. I learned to subconsciously reroute around town. I’m not going to do that anymore. It kills me to think I will never see any of those friends outside their houses again. I will never see Buckley on his skateboard, or Mat fixing his quad, or Marc kicking the soccer ball or washing his car. But I will drive by and I will remember them all so that I never forget.

My house today is still recovering from the time when addiction lived here. There are still some weeds in my lawn, a few shingles missing off my roof, but slowly and surely I repair the damage. My friends and family help to hand me the tools I need to rebuild. The program of recovery I work is the blueprint for construction. My sobriety is the currency that pays for all the supplies.

I don’t have to live that life anymore. My friends and family don’t need to watch me die. Standing in that funeral home, over and over again, for too many young lives lost, I know for sure that I don’t ever want my mother and my family to stand in that room for me. Not anytime soon.

Because I know for certain that we can rebuild. We can and do recover.

Just think of all the people that you knew in the past,
That passed on, they in heaven, found peace at last.
Picture a place that they exist, together.
There has to be a place better than this, in heaven.
So right before I sleep, dear God, what I’m askin’
Remember this face, save me a place, in [Addict’s] mansion.

©Copyright 2018 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Harm Reduction: The Answer to Community Drug Issues

There has been a lot of talk lately about the effects addicts have on the community. Especially when it comes to addicts using in cars parked in neighborhoods, syringes and other paraphernalia being found around our communities, and theft of personal belongings especially from cars. People in the community are up in arms about it. They want it dealt with, they don’t want to see it, they don’t want their children to see it.

The problem here is not that we don’t have solutions to these problems. We absolutely do. Progressive societies, especially the Nordic ones, have come up with some great alternative solutions to these exact problems. So why don’t we implement them? The answer is that people who have absolutely nothing to do with addiction, are not addicts themselves, do not work in the field, but live in the community, feel that they know what’s best for us and are so vocal to town administrations that it prevents these solutions from being utilized.

The issue is that these progressive solutions are not understood by the community at large. Harm reduction strategies seem “soft” or “counterproductive” or “enabling” to people on the outside, and even to some people on the inside. They are not ultimately fixing the problem, they are reducing the harm associated with the problem, which is why we call it harm REDUCTION.

If you don’t want to see active addiction in your community, you have to give it a place to go.

There are three big harm reduction strategies that address the problems our communities are facing.

1. Needle Exchanges

Needle exchanges are the easiest to implement, and the less invasive of all the harm reduction strategies I’ll be addressing. They can be mobile or stationary and there are advantages to both. Mobile exchanges are great because they can go to high traffic areas for drug users and meet them where they are, which makes it easier for many addicts to access their services. This works best in larger cities. In smaller communities, especially those that are more upward socioeconomic areas, a stationary facility can be a good option as well. Being stationary can provide more space for more services, so that the facility can possibly employ other agents who can assist addicts in other ways.

This directly deals with the issue of drug paraphernalia being left in streets, parks, parking lots, and other areas of the community. This is becoming an issue in a lot of towns, so why not confront it head on by creating a safe place to dispose of dirty works? Most towns have no place where people can safely dispose of syringes, even for diabetics! These facilities typically give one syringe for every one that is turned in. Even in the instance that they do provide syringes without exchanging them, people need to understand that syringes are not hard to come by. They can be purchased in bulk on the internet, and can be picked up in quantities under ten at many pharmacies. It’s not that these facilities are giving out contraband that cannot be obtained any other way. Addicts have always, and will always, find what they need when they need it. Needle exchanges are the answer to used and dirty paraphernalia in our communities.

2. Safe Injection Sites

Another big problem we are seeing in our communities is people parked in cars on neighborhood streets, people in public restrooms, parking lots, and other public places using drugs. Many addicts cannot go home to use because they are hiding from their families or the people they live with. I know many addicts who unfortunately have children in the home, whether the children are theirs or a relatives, and they don’t want to bring drugs into the home. Worst of all, many addicts are homeless and don’t have a safe place to use.

Providing these facilities gives addicts that safe place they need to take care of their business. It keeps addicts out of public places where they can be seen by residents, especially children. This also contributes to the work of needle exchanges in that it keeps works off the streets.

The best and most useful part of these facilities is that they virtually eliminate overdose deaths. They are typically staffed with medical professionals who can intervene in the event of an overdose and administer Narcan and life saving measures. Furthermore, they typically have counseling staff on hand to help those who are ready to get clean. They can fast track addicts into treatment and eliminate many of the barriers to getting clean.

Of course, no one wants one of these facilities in their neighborhood.

We have enough trouble opening methadone clinics in our communities. People seem to believe that these facilities bring addicts to the area, not understanding that addicts are ALREADY THERE. These facilities help addicts to stay alive long enough to hopefully get clean when they are ready.

3. Heroin Assisted Treatment

The most controversial of all the harm reduction strategies that exist in the world is heroin maintenance, or Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT). Many countries utilize this program in a similar way to how the United States utilizes methadone maintenance programs. The clients are provided with a safe, synthetic heroin several times throughout the day and must use it at the facility. These programs are sometimes used in conjunction with methadone.

While this seems contradictory, it has had incredible success in Europe. Statistics show a decrease in illicit drug use overall, a lack of appeal of heroin to young people, and of course a virtual elimination of overdose deaths. Many people reduce their dose over time, just as with methadone, and eventually get their lives together. The idea is to taper addicts off over a long term, while providing counseling and other resources to help them eventually get off the drug all together.

While methadone works perfectly well for millions of people, some do have an aversion to the medication. Many people continue to use heroin in the early stages of methadone therapy, so these programs are basically providing addicts with a safer way to do what they’re already doing anyway. That’s what harm reduction is all about: Making addicts’ lives safer until they are ready to get clean.

Programs like HAT, while controversial, solve the problem of neighborhood crime. Our communities are seeing more and more petty theft such as car break ins, theft of landscaping equipment off trucks in neighborhood streets, and the theft of building materials from construction sites. This petty theft is how many addicts support their habits. HAT programs provide the narcotics that addicts need to prevent dope sickness, and are a reliable alternative to tainted street heroin. These programs keep people alive, period, and that should be enough in and of itself.

 

People hate the idea of harm reduction strategies because they see it as enabling. However, these strategies exist to help people be safer while engaging in behaviors that they are already going to engage in, regardless of whether the harm reduction strategy is implemented or not.

Something to consider while you’re rolling your eyes at these life saving strategies is that what the United States does and has done to deal with drugs has not and will not ever work. Incarceration doesn’t work. Making an addict a felon will not help them to live in sobriety. Prohibition has never worked. Police crack downs have never worked.

We really need to look at other progressive countries who have the actual science and statistics to back up their policies. Our insistence as a country of doing things our own way, despite plenty of evidence that illustrates that our way is not working, is allowing people to die in record numbers. Eventually, these programs will be proposed in your town. When that time comes, please ask yourself if you want to be part of the problem, or part of the solution. Trust science. Trust statistics. Be willing to open your heart and change your mind.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Theft In Addiction: We’re ALL Guilty

Theft is a huge piece of the puzzle that is addiction. The vast majority of addicts, especially opiate addicts, have stolen something from someone or somewhere at some point in their active addiction. Whether it’s a few dollars from a parent or spouse’s wallet, a pawned piece of jewelry, or an old laptop, most of us are guilty of stealing at one point or another. When we think about theft in addiction, we typically think about the taking of a physical object that does not belong to us. However, that isn’t the only kind of stealing that we do in our addictions.

I recently had an experience with an addict who felt that she was better than the rest of us because as she put it, “I don’t steal”. Apparently she was independently wealthy, or able to maintain employment during her addiction and somehow was able to support her own habit. This is extremely rare, as even the wealthiest of celebrity addicts have used themselves broke in very short order. So this particular addict felt above those of us who have stolen during our addiction.

My father, who generally doesn’t have much to do with the deep and dirty details of my addiction and recovery, is the one who actually put the true nature of theft during addiction into perspective for me some years ago. Even though I never “stole” any money from my dad, unlike the countless dollar taken from my mother’s wallet and endless amounts of her jewelry that I pawned, my dad still felt violated and that he had been stolen from.

He explained that any money he had given me for spending money, bills, or other expenses that I in turn spent on drugs, was money stolen from him. He gave me that money for a specific purpose, and that purpose was NOT to buy drugs. To him, every dollar that I spent on drugs that came from his wallet, even though he had willingly given it to me, was money stolen.

But what about the things that money cannot buy? What about the time that is lost while using? I bet my mom would say that I stole what adds up to years worth of time that we could’ve spent together. She would say that I stole many nights of peaceful sleep from her. I stole her peace of mind. I stole her sanity.

These are all intangible things, things that can’t be measured in dollars and cents, but they are just as real and just as valuable, if not more, than any amount of money that I stole.

Worse still, I stole something more valuable than all of that from not only my mom and dad, but my brother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my friends, and anyone who knew me. I stole their TRUST. Trust can be easy to gain, and even implied among family members. However, once it is gone, it can be impossible to regain it.

I was banned from the homes of family members for years, because I stole that trust from them. I was not allowed to carry cash by my parents for years, because I stole that trust from them. Everywhere I went, everything I did, every word I said, had to be questioned. Even months into sobriety, I couldn’t be trusted to do something as simple as drive to pick up the Chinese food from around the corner. The theft of that trust is the most valuable thing I ever stole, and I took it from more people than I can count.

We steal so much in our addictions that can’t be measured.

Time, friendship, relationships, and trust are just a few of the non-monetary things we steal during our addictions. Money, electronics, cars, jewelry, all of those physical things can be replaced, and in some cases quite easily. The real theft is the emotional toll we put on those around us. There isn’t a single one of us who lived through an addiction that didn’t steal some sanity from the people who love and care about us.

So to any addict out there who feels “better than” because they’ve never been in a pawn shop or lifted a few bills from someone else’s wallet, just remember that the things you stole are just as real, and just as valuable. And until you understand and own that, you’ll never be able to repair the damage and you’ll never truly live life in recovery.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Liar, Liar: When You’re High Functioning & Mentally Ill

There are few people out there as open about their addiction and mental health as I am. Anybody who knows me knows that I have some long term issues that I have been dealing with my entire life. The problem is that actions speak louder than words. Even though I am very vocal about my problems, people don’t often see them in action, so they believe they aren’t really there, or are not as severe as they are.

When someone is more high functioning in their mental illness, the way I am, people often think that we’re making up our symptoms or that our diagnosis isn’t real. Because we present as articulate, educated, or in any way “normal”, people think that our mental illness is made up or in some way not serious.

There have been times that I’ve explained to people that I am disabled, and receive disability assistance. I cannot tell you how many times the person has said some form of “You’re so lucky! I wish I was disabled!” No one would ever dream of saying that to a person who had lost a limb, or someone suffering from a serious physical illness. What possess a person to think that being mentally disabled is something to be desired?

What people don’t see is what happens in private. Classmates notice that I miss a lot of school, but when I’m there, it doesn’t seem like anything is wrong. I have always done an excellent job of blending in, acting normal, and keeping the crazy to myself. Even close friends who I have known for years don’t know the extent of my mental illness. I have been able to work a variety of jobs during certain points in my life, and have even owned my own business. On the outside, it seems like I’m just a normal person, maybe with just a few quirks.

The first thing to understand is that I am very medication compliant. I have grown out of the phase where being manic on purpose sounds like fun, so I generally always take the medication that is prescribed to me. However, sometimes the disorder outsmarts the medication. I do suffer from break out episodes from time to time, including some that are very severe and others that are less so.

Bipolar I is the most severe form of Bipolar disorder. It is characterized by extreme highs and lows, which isn’t a very illustrative way to describe the symptoms. People often mistakenly believe that the bipolar high just means a person is very happy. This is simply not the case. The manic high can be just as risky and dangerous as the depressive lows.

Mania is characterized by rapid speech, sometimes so fast that people cannot even understand what I’m saying. Additionally, the thoughts being expressed flow so quickly that people cannot keep up with what I’m trying to say. In my brain, thoughts are cycling a mile a minute. It is difficult to stay on task, because I am prone to jump from one thing to the next without completing any of the tasks at hand. People who are in a manic episode are also prone to risky behaviors outside of their regular character. Common behaviors are shoplifting, wild spending and buying things that you do not need, including multiples of items you already own, excessive drinking or drug use, promiscuity and risky sexual activity, and risky or dangerous activity in general.

During a manic episode, people are prone to grandiose thoughts and behaviors. They believe they are capable of things that they normally would not consider possible. The paranoia is also very real. It’s easy to start believing that people are talking about you, ignoring you, or conspiring against you.

You start to get in arguments and debates inside your own head.

Irritability is another common symptom of mania. Snapping at people, losing your patience very quickly, and having a low tolerance for anything that isn’t going exactly your way are all common attributes of someone dealing with a manic episode. It’s very contrary to the mistaken idea that a manic person is happy. A lot of irritability for me in mania comes from people not keeping up with my crazy train of thoughts and ideas. I start to feel like everyone around me is a complete moron for not being able to make sense of my delusional thought process. It can feel so frustrating, and make me feel so powerless, that often times I dissolve into tears and the whole episode of frustration and irritability to the point of break down happens so fast that people around me are just completely confused as to what in the hell is going on.

Mania can turn into psychosis in some people, myself included. This can be as simple as hearing things that aren’t there, or thinking you saw something that wasn’t real. It can progress into losing track of time and space, being unsure about how you got somewhere or not knowing where you are. It can be very frightening and disorienting.

On the other end, individuals suffering from Bipolar I can suffer from depression that is just as crippling as those with typical clinical depression. It starts with being withdrawn, pulling away from people and things you care about. You feel overwhelmed by life in general, and simple daily tasks become too difficult to even consider.

There are times when I don’t shower, brush my teeth, or even eat, for days at a time.

When you are incapable of basic grooming, the thought of going to school or work is simply out of the question. It feels like the world is coming down around you, like you’re drowning in your own despair. It also manifests physically, making it something that you can’t just snap out of. I get a lot of headaches that make me so dizzy I am unable to drive, or even sit up in a chair. I have no choice but to lay down until it passes. Muscles and joints become sore, so much so that even if I could motivate myself to shower it is physically impossible to hold the blow dryer to dry my hair.

Deep depression is also very disorienting. You become confused about time and dates, losing track of where you’re supposed to be and when. You can become extremely forgetful, and even the most intelligent and capable person can start to feel, and act, like an idiot. You can forget how to do basic tasks that you’ve done a thousand times before.

There are also episodes that we refer to as a “mixed state”, where elements of both mania and depression manifest at the same time. There are some theories out there that Bipolar patterns will change after the introduction of psychiatric medications. I personally think there may be some truth in this. When I was young, my patterns were very easy to detect and follow. Now, after fifteen years of treatment with medications, I experience many more mixed episodes and a much less discernable pattern to the highs and lows. This can also be attributed to the disease changing as I get older.

Living with Bipolar I is a lot harder than people think, because so many of us who struggle with it are very good at hiding its symptoms. Many brilliant people in history are suspected to have been Bipolar, because so much creativity can flow from the episodes. This makes it even harder for people to understand that just because I may seem smart, or put together, does not mean that I am not mentally ill at the same time.

For those of us who have substance abuse issues as well, it is even harder for us to get and stay sober.

When our mental illness takes us from our ability to make rational and logical decisions, we are prone to relapse even when we have been enjoying long term sobriety. Many of us suffer from extreme episodes during early recovery, when all the chemicals are going crazy in our brains. It makes it very challenging to let go of the safety net of regular drug use.

Anyone who knows anything about SSI and SSDI (the two government programs for disability insurance), knows how challenging it is to get accepted. People apply over and over, some with very serious disabilities, and are denied time and again. Getting approved on your first application is almost unheard of. When I presented my history to Social Security, not only was I approved on my first application but in record time. I did not have an attorney or someone to help me navigate the system. I did not have any advantages in any way. All I had was a fifteen year history of severe mental illness, complete with multiple hospitalizations. Not even the government could deny the reality of my situation, even while people around me routinely do.

Despite the severity of my mental illness, no one really knows the true depths of the insanity besides my mother. Even my father, who has been around this entire time, does not fully understand the severity of my condition. He thinks disability is a temporary situation, and that I will finish school and get a full time job. The likelihood of this happening is slim to none. I have never done anything for 40 hours a week with any kind of regularity. I have not been able to complete a full 30 hour school week yet, up to this point. Every time I try to take on more than about 20 hours of commitment, whether to a job or school, I wind up dissolving into a complete break down. Forget school or work, I find myself unable to take care of my basic human needs. I just cannot handle it.

Just like with my father, people who have known me for many years still don’t get it. Whether it’s friends or family, they just don’t understand how severe and far reaching my mental illness truly is. They don’t realize that what they have seen is just the tip of the ice berg.

They have never seen the true extent of my issues, and because of that they have expectations for me that are beyond unrealistic.

The government awards disability to people on the assumption that their situation is permanent, or very long term. I have been dealing with this disorder for over fifteen years. My track record is pretty solid. What gives anyone the idea that I’m suddenly going to morph into this healthy, “normal” person is beyond me.

If it wasn’t for my family and the support they have given me, I would likely be living in some kind of home for disabled adults. I have been working very hard to shift the financial responsibilities of my life and well being off of my parents and on to the programs that are available to me. My parents won’t be able to support me forever, and it’s important that I find a way to survive in this world without their constant attention, supervision, and finances.

The point of this blog is not to garner sympathy. It’s to bring awareness to the fact that none of us know what the people around us are going through in private. Even when someone is as open as I am, the people around us still don’t know the true depths of our issues.

I want people to understand what living with a severe mental illness is really like, the way it affects our daily lives, and to know that what they see on the outside may not be a true reflection of what’s going on inside.

Even those of us who share a diagnosis do not share the same level of disorder. Some of us are more functional than others. Some of us are very good at hiding our dysfunction. Bipolar Disorder is characterized by episodes that come and go, leaving us somewhat “normal” in between. That’s why people think we are better off than we really are, because they aren’t seeing the extent of the illness at its worst.

As an advocate, it’s my job to draw attention to the issues that addicts and mentally ill people face every day. I choose to be honest about my own struggles because I firmly believe the only way to reduce stigma is for those of us who are dealing with these issues to be honest about what we face and what our struggles are.

If I wasn’t honest with school administrators, I would’ve never graduated high school. I needed accommodations then, and continue to need them now. I’ve needed them at every job I’ve ever had. The point is that the help is out there for those of us dealing with mental illness to still succeed in life. If we advocate for ourselves and the assistance we need, we can still do things that “normal” people do like go to school or hold a job. We need to illustrate that many of us do present as “normal” people sometimes, so that those around us understand that it is possible to be crippled by symptoms one week and be highly functioning the next. We need to help people around us understand our strengths and our limitations, so they can be more sensitive to our needs the way they would be with a physically disabled person.

It is also important to remember that mental illness can be fatal. When untreated, and even sometimes when it is treated, those of us suffering from mental illness can become suicidal. We are also at risk of injury or death from risky or dangerous behavior during episodes. The times in my life when I have felt this way have been largely from feeling misunderstood and incapable of keeping up with the world around me. Feeling like a failure at life, a failure at doing the most basic things that “normal” people do, like working a normal 40 hour work week or graduating from high school, can make someone suffering from a mental illness feel completely invalidated and useless. I have often felt like a burden on my parents, and have at times convinced myself their lives would be easier and better if I wasn’t around.

When we are honest with ourselves, and in turn honest with those around us, we can set ourselves up for a more successful life. We can seek special accommodations from school or work, to help us succeed when we otherwise might not be able to. I have tried a lot of things, and have had many failures along the way. Sometimes special accommodations can make an impossible thing possible. Sometimes we still fail, and that’s okay too. It can be very difficult to not feel as though people are looking at you like a faker. Part of that is paranoia from the disorder, and part of that is factual. I just try to remember that the people who matter most know the truth. My doctors know the truth, the government knows the truth, and my mother knows the truth. If people think I’m fabricating something or exaggerating, that’s on them. Luckily, the government protects me and others dealing with mental illness from discrimination under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to continue to advocate for ourselves.

Many people are dealing with mental illness in secret, due to the shame and stigma that surrounds the topic. I encourage you to be honest with yourself, and get honest with at least one person in your life who doesn’t know or understand your situation. Challenge yourself to be honest, and challenge them to learn about your disorder and stand by you despite it. You never know, that person may be dealing with their own issues and you could start a dialogue. You’ll never know until you take that leap, and get honest, about who you really are and what you’re really capable of.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

No Stigma, Know More

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