Handling the Stigma of Recovery
Stigma isn’t tangible, but it is very real.
It’s seen in the facial expressions of a person when she finds out her friend is an alcoholic. It’s heard in the tone of voice an employer uses with someone in recovery during an interview. It’s seen in the portrayals and stereotypes of addicts shown on TV shows and in the media.
Recovery can feel like an uphill battle, even on the best of days. Stigma can make that climb even steeper. Knowing how to handle stigma can be the difference between a successful recovery and relapsing.
What Is Stigma?
Stigma is based on perceptions, assumptions, and generalizations—not facts and truth. Stigma is defined as a set of negative views held by individuals, groups, or entire societies about a specific group of people. Stigma is a major cause of discrimination and violation of human rights, according to the World Health Organization.
The consequences of stigma include:
- Isolation and depression: If people feel they are reduced to a stereotype, they can feel like no one understands them or wants to know them. This can lead to depression.
- Defensiveness and anger: It hurts to be misunderstood and this hurt can turn into anger. Anger can lead to destructive behavior which, ironically, can reinforce stigmas that society has of people in recovery.
- Shame: Guilt refers to what a person did—you either did something wrong or you are innocent. Shame, on the other hand, is the conviction that you, not just your actions, are wrong. Guilt is about actions; shame is about identity. Those in recovery know that they must own up to the actions they are guilty of—substance abuse and the hurtful actions that resulted from their choices. Dealing with shame is another story. Shame is both how society views an individual and how that person views themselves. Living under a burden of heavy shame is devastating.
- Hesitancy to seek help: Of all the consequences of stigma, this one is perhaps the scariest. The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that over 20 million Americans struggle with substance abuse. However, less than 3 million Americans sought help through facilities. Why is there a discrepancy? One reason is that stigma of substance abuse keeps individuals from admitting they have a problem.
Not only are the consequences awful in their own right, they can also push people away from healthy lifestyles and into a relapse. Because of this, handling stigma in a healthy manner is crucial to staying sober.
How Can You Recognize Stigma?
Stigma shows itself in variety of ways. One of the clearest ways stigma infiltrates our society is the words commonly used to describe people in recovery. What ideas or associations come to mind when you hear the words junkie or crackhead? These terms are problematic because they imply that a person’s addiction is their defining characteristic. These terms attack a person’s identity, instead of addressing a struggle.
One simple way to change the stigma of addiction is to use terms such as a person who struggles with substance abuse when you’re discussing the need for treatment or progress made in recovery.
How Can You Fight Stigma?
If you struggle with addiction, you have a powerful voice to break the stigma surrounding substance abuse. Here are some things you can do:
- Find a support system. Find a group of people who understand you when you talk about how you’ve been hurt by stigmas. Find a group that can help you find solutions and healthy attitudes to have when you face such situations.
- Make goals. Break the stigmas by proving them wrong. Show that it’s possible for those in recovery to have hope and live a wonderful life.
- Work for awareness. Share your stories. Post them on social media. Give talks in the community. Tell your friends and family. Spread the knowledge and the wisdom you’ve learned in recovery.
If you do not personally struggle with addiction, you can still be an advocate for those who do. Here are some ways you can help:
- Check your words, actions, and attitudes. Believe and treat people like equal human beings worthy of dignity.
- Listen without judgment. Be empathetic. Remind yourself that if your life circumstances had been different, you just as easily could be struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
- Research and know the correct facts about addiction. When you hear someone give incorrect facts, gently correct them and use the opportunity to begin a meaningful dialogue.
- Stand up for those who are being mistreated because of their drug use. Put your knowledge about addiction to use. Whether it is the homeless person your friend makes an unfair comment about or a coworker that everyone gossips about, you can be an advocate.
Victory Addiction Recovery Center uses a holistic approach to treatment that helps you learn how to become sober, stay sober, and cope with stigma that might threaten your sobriety. Contact us today to learn more.
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