Imagine yourself getting off work and you are walking to the grocery store. On your way there, you see a young woman sitting on the sidewalk with a needle. You already know what is going to happen. What is your first thought?
I guarantee there will be judgment and stigmatization, and those two will follow that woman for the rest of her life. That stigma will define her life. It will define every decision she makes, every plan, and human encounter she has. The sad side of addiction is that after your body has gotten clean from whatever substance you have been abusing, u also need to re-train and re-shape your brain and your whole life. You must change the way you walk, talk, and the way you think. You have to change the places you used to go to and the people you used to spend time with. After making all this progress, you are hit with the judgemental “oh, so you are an addict?”.
We shame addicts, we punish them, we send them to jail and we give them criminal records. They won’t get hired for their dream jobs or taken seriously because they are recovering from an addiction. Every new person they meet will define their entire humanly existence because they are in recovery. They can be amazing athletes, writers. They might have valuable financial knowledge or insane math skills, but at the end of the day, to our society, they are JUST ADDICTS.
You don’t tell, and we don’t ask.
Now, let’s talk about how these stigmas can deter people from getting help. I created a scenario to make this a little bit more clear. To start things off, I’d like to say, that I don’t think anyone is ashamed, scared maybe, but never ashamed of going to a doctor because they found a weird-looking mole on their arm, or because they suffer from bad headaches. But when it comes to addiction, you don’t tell and we don’t ask.
A woman is pregnant with her second child and during her pregnancy, she started to use drugs. She goes to a regular, standard doctor’s visit. The doctor hands her a checklist of typical questions about alcohol and drug usage and smoking. The mother tells her doctor that she does suffer from an addiction. They have a lengthy conversation where the mother is informed of the risks of using drugs during pregnancy. The doctor also tells her, that pregnancy is a great time and a chance to get better. The mother receives help and she’s not labeled as an unfit mother or a horrible person. She is labeled as a human, who has an illness and needs help. She recovers from her addiction and gives birth to her second child. The CPS won’t take her children away, they just offer her all the support she needs to stay sober.
Because there is no judgment, stigma, labeling, and fear, this mother was able to be open about her issues. She got help and support, she got to keep her kids, and is on her way to a full recovery. This is how it would go in an ideal society, but unfortunately in most cases, this isn’t the reality.
“If addicts are to overcome the stigma of addiction, professionals and nonprofessionals must educate the public.”
― Asa Don Brown
Living life with labels
See, in real world her encounter with the doctor would probably be something like this.
We have the same woman, going to her doctor’s appointment. She’s handed the same checklist that has the same questions. She checks the box “no I don’t use alcohol or drugs”, because she is scared. She is scared that if she says yes, they will judge her, label her and take her kids away. And because of this fear, she won’t tell anyone about her problems. This means she won’t receive help, and probably at some point, the CPS will take her children away and she won’t be allowed to see them until she stops using drugs. My question is, how is she going to recover without receiving treatment?
Moral failure and weakness of will.
Even though the initial decision to try drugs might have been voluntary, science and many reaserches argue that addiction isn’t caused by moral failing or weakness of will. The theory of addiction being a brain disease is widely supported, but still controversial. Some argue that it should be characterized as a condition that needs continued management and that it can be managed through behavioral changes. (American Addiction Centers Editorial Staff 2020)
The brain disease model on the other hand is supported by the changes that happen in the brain as a result of continuous substance abuse. The brain attempts to adapt to the presence of a substance in order to function normally. When these neurobiological changes occur, the behavioral choice is lessened. (American Addiction Centers Editorial Staff 2020)
Addicts are humans too.
To erase these stigmas and this way help people receive treatment, we need to understand what addiction is, and what causes it. To help people get the support they need, we need to pay attention to our own attitudes. Stigmas keep professionals from treating and helping people properly. Addiction doesn’t make anyone any less of a human.
American Addiction Centers.