Addiction Stigma: Choice Versus Disease

“Mental illness is the last frontier. The gay thing is part of everyday life now on a show like ‘Modern Family,’ but mental illness is still full of stigma. Maybe it is time for that to change.” Eric McCormack

In doing my research for this blog, I came across an article in the Huffington Post that stirred up mixed emotions. The title read “The stigma of addiction is more dangerous than overdoses.” I had to pause and ponder. Could that be a true statement? I may never be sure. The author started the article with the sentence “People in recovery aren’t feeding the stigma. It comes from people who don’t understand addiction.” Again, pause. What did I just read? Often controversial topics are neither black and white nor 50 shades of grey but somewhere in the middle. And the wording is important.

First of let’s look at the phrase “people in recovery.” Who is that? Anyone who attends a meeting, someone who acquires some time off drugs, a person working a 12-step program and helping others? I have seen all three make bad decisions towards themselves, others and society. Some have years sober and open predatory businesses and harm everyone they meet, even deal with regular criminal activity as a way of life. Others have conversion experiences and are doing all they can but make mistakes. Character building can be a slow process.

Separating the Addict from the Addiction

It indeed has been for me. It’s not for anyone to judge, yet it is unwise not to discern. It’s tough to miss that a using addict or alcoholic is an entirely different story. When in the darkness of active addiction we will hurt everyone around us. No one can stand to see a loved one destroy themselves. But usually, it goes much deeper than that. No disease is like an addiction to substances or alcohol. Cancer, HIV, diabetes, or any other illnesses do not carry the side effects of pawning family heirlooms, adultery, violence, abuse and a laundry list of spiritual and legal crimes. It takes an almost inhuman amount of forgiveness and compassion to love in the face of the injustices caused by a using addict. That response is not possible without education and understanding and often a basis in spirituality.

The Debate of Choice Vs. Disease

The next part of the statement on stigma, that “It comes from people who don’t understand addiction.” is spot on. The ever-common debate of choice vs. disease comes into play. The majority of those who have contempt for addicts err on the side of choice. They reason that because they choose not to do drugs and suffer the consequences of addiction others should be able to the same. The argument applies the same logic that would condemn a person with Tourette’s for saying something inappropriate; they don’t choose to shout random profanity.

The debate is not worth having. People who argue it’s a choice are arguing with science, medicine, and government institutions. The CDC site had a link labeled “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” that explains it all.

“For much of the past century, scientists studying drug abuse labored in the shadows of powerful myths and misconceptions about the nature of addiction. When scientists began to study addictive behavior in the 1930s, people addicted to drugs were thought to be morally flawed and lacking in willpower. Those views shaped society’s responses to drug abuse, treating it as a moral failing rather than a health problem, which led to an emphasis on punishment rather than prevention and treatment. Today, thanks to science, our views and our responses to addiction and other substance use disorders have changed dramatically. Groundbreaking discoveries about the brain have revolutionized our understanding of compulsive drug use, enabling us to respond effectively to the problem.”

Think about this quote from the article:

“Less than 10% of people like me end up asking for treatment, or medical help of any kind, for their substance problems. Less than 10%. That’s not because we don’t want help. It’s because, in this culture, merely admitting that you need help means wearing a scarlet A on your chest for the rest of your life. A is for Addict. A is for Alcoholic. People like me often barely survive this disease, only to be treated to a lifetime of unequal treatment, unkindness, prejudice, and discrimination.”

While that quote is purely anecdotal, if we take it at face value, we have to acknowledge the grim reality: people are dying because of stigma. In addition to the myriad of barriers people have to hurdle to overcome addiction, even STARTING the process of sobriety is made more difficult by society.

Where does this leave the people who don’t dare to speak up for themselves because they fear the backlash? The stigma around addiction needs to be eradicated. This won’t happen overnight, but it can be started in small steps. Keep up with our blogs to see more stigma installments and let us know your ideas on how we can get to living stigma-free.