Destigmatize Addiction

Last week was Opioid Awareness Day on the Hill in Minnesota. There is so much good going on to combat addiction. I’m thankful for my fellow advocates who show up and do their part in ending this epidemic.   Stopping addiction from happening and getting help for the people who have the disease of addiction is the goal, but there is no one easy answer. Each of us is passionate about different aspects regarding addiction and it’s important for us all to work together and support one another because that is how we will get things done.

I am passionate about ending the stigma of addiction. No one grows up and says, “I’d like to be an alcoholic or addicted to heroin”.   No one says, “I’d like to have cancer or some other disease.” Addiction happens and there is still so much judgment and shame surrounding it. How is a person supposed to get help if they are so ashamed they can’t ask for it? How can we, as a community, stop assuming and judging, and start actively help people struggling with addiction? And, the people that love the people with addiction need help, too. There is too much shame and judgment for them, as well.

These are things that have been said to me :

“Well, you got divorced, what did you think was going to happen?

“Let‘s let all the addicts overdose and then, wah-lah, problem solved”

When I say addiction is a disease, people have laughed “Ha, right, that’s funny – like it’s a ‘disease’”

“Why don’t they just stop (drinking, taking drugs, etc.). How stupid are they?”

“If I didn’t know you, I would have said it was your fault for your child’s addiction”

“You are handling this all wrong, you need to take all her money away, etc.”

None of these things were helpful and actually made things worse. I don’t blame the people who said them. I might have had those same thoughts until I became intimately familiar with the disease of addiction. It is a cunning and baffling disease that I did not cause. I cannot control it. And, I can’t cure it.

But, I can love my addict, fearlessly and hopefully. And, never give up because miracles do happen.

Here is what I didn’t know: the addict is suffering as much as the one who loves them. I thought it must be great being an addict – it seems like they are free from all responsibility and reality. But I have learned, it is terrifying being addicted. It might have started out with the illusion they could control it, but now their body and brain has been hijacked and they are driven to keep using a substance just to feel normal not to get high. Trying to figure out how to get money to pay for it and waiting around to get it was awful, because they didn’t want to do it. It might be hard to get your head around, but if you can put yourself in their place and think of how hard it would be to you keep doing the very thing you don’t want to do and how ashamed they feel because they hurt their family and friends. But, their brains have been hijacked and they really can’t help themselves and are too ashamed to ask for help.

The first thing we can do to destigmatize addiction is to talk about it. Anything that we stuff inside only festers. We are only as sick as the secrets we keep. It might be scary or difficult to talk about addiction, but what a relief it is to say it out loud.

“I think my son is an addict”

“My Dad is in rehab for the fourth time, I don’t know what to do”

“My husband didn’t come home last night. I think he was too drunk to drive”

“I think I might be addicted to pain meds”

“My daughter is acting really weird and I’m worried she is experimenting with drugs”

These are all difficult things to say or hear, but it starts a conversation. If we can continue it without judgment, so much good can come from it. We don’t have to give advice or fix things. Just listen. We can ask them if they would like to tell us more. We can give them our full attention and show them that we truly care. We can ask if they would like us to help them find the help they need. That means that we are not making phone calls for them. We might look up support numbers to give to them, but they need to make the call.  That way we can give them the dignity of being a responsible person.

What difficult conversation can you engage in today without judgment?