Stigma: Dealing with the Family

“Guilt is one side of a nasty triangle; the other two sides are shame and stigma.” Germaine Greer

I remember one of the most shameful days of my life as if it were yesterday. I was in my late twenties living in North Philadelphia. The Bad Lands. Crack cocaine had taken a vicious hold of my life. I hadn’t lost everything yet, that would come later. I was living and running a business out of a bachelor pad. A dozen or so street kids would show up daily I would consign them merchandise to sell business to business. We would split profits at the end of the day. I was making $400 on a bad day for an hour or two of work which consisted of walking from my kitchen to my closet and back. Not too bad for an active addict.

My sister and her husband came to visit me from Manhattan. They stayed for a week. My addiction had progressed too much to be kept a secret. The family knew I drank and smoked weed, even used coke a bit. But crack is a whole other thing. That week it came out. Eventually, the word got to my mother. No bueno. That was a hard conversation. I convinced her somehow that it was just something I experimented with and wasn’t going to continue. The conversation ended, but the pit in my stomach remained for years.

Dealing with the Family’s Misunderstanding

Shortly after that, it came. I was in a position to help the family financially here and there. I rarely needed help or was humble enough to ask if I did. I had learned the motto early that “If I don’t kill it we don’t eat.” But this time I got myself into a bind. I called my mom and asked for a quick loan that I could repay back immediately. My addiction came up. An argument ensued. The word “crackhead” came out of my mother’s mouth. I had never felt lower in my life. I had hurt, abandoned and dishonored the person who made and raised me. Hardcore drug users carry the same judgment and shame of lepers thousands of years ago. I never wanted to be that. I never wanted to be like my father who died of the consequences of addiction after writing a book titled “Nobody’s Hero,” then embodying that title by societies standards.

Psychology Today writes, “Addiction is not a one-person affair. Millions of loved ones become caught in its insidious web of deception, denial, and danger. Families challenged by addiction are wounded and weary. They experience negative feelings and emotions which block the road to recovery. A major roadblock is the stigma of addiction. It fuels shame which feeds on secrets, silence, and judgment.”

How to Better Understand Addiction

Stigma. We all are prone to it. “Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace or infamy, a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation. Substance use disorders carry a high burden of stigma; fear of judgment means that people with substance use disorders are less likely to seek help, and more likely to drop out of treatment programs in which they do enroll. “, declares an article by SAMHSA entitled “Words matters: How language choice can reduce stigma.” First, a problem must be identified before it can be corrected. In advising professionals, this article has some suggestions for professionals that seem to have personal application. Are we separating the person from their addiction? Are we moralizing the effects of the condition? Do we engage in panic-driven behaviors that don’t help the overall problem?

Claire Rudy Foster makes an excellent point in saying: “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.”