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Breaking the Stigma

addiction stigma

Breaking the Stigma

December 19, 2016
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A quick statement on late night radio shows society is moving in the right direction in terms of the way people are viewing addiction as a common health problem.

On December 5th, beloved American sports reporter Craig Sager, best known for his role as a sideline reporter during televised NBA games, lost a two year battle with cancer. Last night, while walking my dogs in the frigid cold air, I listened to a CBS Sports Radio show online where the host was discussing how much he looked up to and admired Sager. During his respectful remembrance of the former NBA sideline reporter, the radio host began an emotional diatribe against cancer and the destructive force that cancer is to the millions and millions of people impacted by the disease each year.

This is of course nothing new. Every year cancer takes the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout this country and around the world. Every year, millions are impacted and become angry and resentful at the disease. Every time someone passes away, those that are impacted speak out against cancer. They have walks. They raise money. They rally. A radio personality speaking on a radio show angrily about the disease that took the life of someone he cared about and looked up to isn’t new. It isn’t even that newsworthy. It’s pretty standard, actually. However, during his diatribe there was a quick statement he made that made me stop in my tracks. It wasn’t purposeful, it didn’t seem to be done to make a point or an impact and it probably isn’t even something he consciously said, but more a statement that happened naturally as he spoke. That is wasn’t done to be impactful made it to me all the more powerful. This radio personality, speaking out in anger and resentment against the disease of cancer, said (and I paraphrase) “cancer touches us all. I don’t know a single person that isn’t impacted by cancer, either themselves or someone they love. I don’t know a single person in this country impacted by addiction, whether it be themselves or someone they know or love. I don’t know someone that doesn’t know someone with cancer and someone that knows someone suffering from addiction. These diseases are killing people. I hate cancer. It is a scourge on our country…” It was quick and it was subtle and it probably was said subconsciously, but in that one quick statement this radio personality equated a person dying of cancer and the way cancer impacts our society to addiction and the way addiction impacts our communities. And as he did I got chills up my spine. I realized in that moment that maybe, just maybe, we as a society really are beginning to look at addiction different. Maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to look at addiction not as a moral failing of weak-willed people who “choose” to be burdens on society and kill themselves with self-ingested poison but instead look at addiction as a health issue and a brain disease like many other illnesses and diseases. Like cancer.

The crazy part about this is that the addiction, treatment and recovery communities have been using the “addiction is just like cancer” example for years, often falling on society’s deaf ears. The medical community classified addiction as a disease decades ago, but it has been an uphill battle to get society at large to accept that classification. Go onto any online message board, web site comment section or social media platform after a news story having anything to do with addiction is posted. Watch in horror as people comment about how that person “deserved to die” because of their addiction and how addicts and alcoholics are the scum of the earth. The disease concept of addiction has been fighting a long, losing battle for years. It’s embarrassing that as a society we still need to be convinced of something that science and medicine proved to be true so many years ago. Therefore, in an all-out effort to validate addiction, to attempt to get insurance companies to pay for addiction treatment and to have the behaviors of addiction be understood by those who have never gone through it themselves, the addiction treatment and recovery communities regularly turn to the diseases of cancer and diabetes as examples of closely related illnesses that people can understand, related to and that will legitimize addiction as a disease. But the major point here is that it is the addiction people that regularly use cancer as the comparison. It is the addiction people that try to force cancer into the conversation with those people that still have an 1800’s viewpoint towards addiction. “You don’t think it’s a disease?” they say, “well it’s just like cancer and here’s why…” However, yesterday, it was not an addiction person trying to tie addiction in with cancer. It was a layperson (for all we know) having a normal conversation about cancer and its impact on society that, without forcing it into the conversation, organically used cancer and addiction in the same sentence, demonstrating how similar they are in how they impact society. It was small. It was subtle. But it was there…and it was powerful.

Stigma is a powerful thing. Anyone that has suffered from the disease of addiction or that works in the addiction treatment field knows how powerful stigma can be in acting as a barrier for someone seeking help. Stigma impacts the individual, the family unit, the local community and society as a whole. It keeps the person suffering from addiction from seeking help. It even keeps the family and loved ones of the suffering person quiet, for fear of how others will view them. It makes people talk in hushed tones and behind closed doors. Stigma says that someone suffering from addiction is weak, is choosing harmful behaviors, is a bad and immoral person, is purposefully causing chaos and harm to those they love the most. It outcasts substance use disorder sufferers. It creates walls and barriers to help and hope and healing. The stigma of addiction is a powerful thread that has been woven into the fabric of society since the beginning of time.

However, if we as a society are ever going to adequately address and overcome the horrifying addiction epidemic that currently haunts our country, one of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed is stigma. We need to begin to look at addiction and those that suffer from addiction differently. We need to look at them as sick people, people in need of treatment, people that often are trapped in a lifestyle of destruction that cannot get out without the love, compassion and understanding of those around them. The stigma of addiction attempts to keep the status quo, reinforcing old beliefs that addicts are bad, weak, immoral people who make a choice every time they get high, not unhealthy people suffering from a behavioral disease that also highjacks the pleasure and rewards centers of their brain. Stigma keeps society sick as it keeps the addict. In order to break the stigma of addiction, there needs to be more education, more prevention, more treatment, more people in recovery speaking up about their personal journey, more people of science and medicine reinforcing what the data proves, more members of society speaking out that they to, although not suffering from addiction themselves, are the parent, the sibling, the employer or the friend of someone that suffers from addiction. That radio host was right. I don’t know a person that doesn’t know somebody that is impacted by cancer. And I certainly don’t know a person that doesn’t know somebody that is impacted by addiction. If this is the truth, and it seems pretty clear that it is, then we all know someone that suffers from addiction and we can put a human face to epidemic. We can humanize addiction and realize that addiction is not a scary monster or an evil demon or a homeless guy with a syringe waiting to rob me, but addiction is my brother, my aunt, my employee, my friend.

Putting a human face to addiction lessens the fear and allows us to break down walls and lessen the stigma surrounding substance abuse. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much, and maybe in truth it wasn’t much as all, but when I heard a radio host unprompted mention addiction and it’s destructive influence in the same sentence as cancer, with no agenda or no ax to grind, it was hopeful. It normalized addiction. It wasn’t anything special, just another disease that we need to combat as a society. It wasn’t picked out of a lineup to be ridiculed or pointed out or judged. It was just another disease. Just another illness impacting our loved ones that we need to work to stop and overcome. A stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. When addiction is normalized, is takes away the shame and guilt. When addiction is normalized, it is no longer disgraceful. And when addiction is no longer disgraceful it becomes just another disease that we need to work together to stop taking the lives of our brothers and our sisters. The radio host normalized addiction. He said everyone knows someone that is suffering from addiction and there is no way that something that impacts so many can in any possible way be disgraceful. Without even realizing it, that radio host took away the stigma of addiction and offered one small step to overcoming the addiction epidemic. One small but hopeful step.

If you or someone you know is in need of help because of drug and/or alcohol abuse or addiction, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual diagnosis addiction treatment in the Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC and Virginia area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please call us at (888) 491-8447 or email our team at info@marylandaddictionrecovery.com. For more information on all of our drug addiction and alcohol addiction services and recovery resources, please visit our web site at www.marylandaddictionrecovery.com.