Changing the Stigma about Addiction

When I was a child, drugs and alcohol were presented as “good girls and boys don’t drink or do drugs.” If one simply behaved, one never had to deal with addiction. Poof.

I did know a couple of ‘functional alcoholics’ as a child, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I recognized—all in retrospect—what had been going on. Outside the simplistic and stern warnings, drug and alcohol abuse just wasn’t something the adults talked about.

Drug and Alcohol Addicts: Not Good People

The avoidance of the subject left me with the distinct impression that anyone seriously addicted to anything was Not A Good Person.

Thus, they were people to be afraid of—or at most. to help to give me a good warm feeling because I was Not Like Them. Sure, if asked directly, I would have likely said I was no better or worse than anyone else. But somewhere inside, I still held to the idea substance abusers could have avoided their problems if they wanted to, or if they had been better in their past. “I must be a better person; otherwise, I’d be addicted to something too, right?” That was my deep, unspoken attitude.

Filming Reality: And Changing My Perspective

It was with this vague, unvoiced feeling that I began working on a documentary about the homeless population. For a year we followed several homeless people and their friends through their daily lives. Many of the people we worked with, in one way or another, were recovering from a serious addiction or actively addicted to alcohol or drugs.

It was during this time that I realized the reasons I’d abstractly known for substance abuse including escape from emotional and physical pain; mental illness; lack of familial input and/or education when young; simple youthful follies; societal and genetic predilection; peer pressure; no articulated reason at all.

A few months into the shoot, we followed one of our subjects (who was scrounging around looking for food, cigarettes, and dropped cash) onto a college campus. It was 2 a.m. and I quickly realized that the frat parties roaring around us were far more “threatening” than anyone I had spent so much time with in the months of filming. Yet, the parties are considered socially acceptable and even encouraged. Neighbors may call in noise complaints, but they won’t say that college students don’t deserve to be safe and warm at night. Society isn’t likely to sign petitions trying to abolish frat houses in general—especially in their neighborhoods—and talk about the degenerative effect college students have on children. They aren’t likely to withhold compassion on the basis of being “better than” the partiers. Percentages tell us a few of these students will go on to be addicted to various substances. Drug users, alcohol abusers, recovering or past, everyone in between . . . are just people.

Meeting people who happened to be addicted to various substances put me face-to-face with the issue of my own prejudices and made me fully realize what before had been an abstract. It’s somehow become simultaneously a widespread homily and something we don’t really believe deep down: I’m no better or worse than any of them. They are no better or worse or more dangerous than anyone else.

Why Society Needs to Get Rid of the Stigma

Until society accepts this, it will continue to promote the problem through refusing housing, services, and often decent treatment to someone with an alcoholic past or drug conviction. All this does is contribute to a cycle of addiction.

Removing the stigma and not “othering” is a part of helping anyone with an addiction. It begins on a personal level but needs to be widely acknowledged before it can make an impact. People say addicts should ‘help themselves, “but how many can overcome their own demons AND societal roadblocks designed to prevent their recovery?”

It’s up to us to do three things:

  1. Talk about it. Addiction is not some mysterious boogieman. I cannot say that if adults had been honest and open with me as a child I wouldn’t have any prejudices . . . but it couldn’t have hurt. We need to teach young kids to be compassionate and understanding towards everyone, including people trapped in a cycle of addiction.
  2. Be compassionate and understanding ourselves. Because it’s not a decision we can make and forget about, it’s a constant struggle against pride and society’s message.
  3. Work to make a change in the society around us. Volunteer at a shelter. Sign petitions for change. Talk to a rehab counselor about how best to help a friend with addiction issues. Don’t let prejudiced or hateful talk slide by at the workplace.

When we don’t understand something, we fear and avoid it. But when we understand and confront the issues—our own pride, societal roadblocks, struggles with addiction—we can help break the cycle and better help the people trapped inside it. 

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