“I’m an Alcoholic, and It’s Okay to Need Help” – Breaking Down the Addiction Stigma

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It’s a common response to a common problem: someone admits they have a problem with drugs or alcohol, and outcome the judgment sticks. Immediately, the addict undergoes a thorough character assassination by people who don’t even understand what addiction is – and isn’t. Sometimes even a recovered addict gets the cold shoulder for admitting they once had a problem, but have since kicked it. What should be celebrated is instead shamed. This judgment doesn’t necessarily have to come from someone who has been directly affected by this addiction, either. It could be a distant relative at a family gathering who simply loves to play “holier-than-thou.” It could be a good friend who is hearing about someone’s problem for the first time. The temptation for someone who has never experienced addiction and doesn’t know anything about it is to judge. To them, addiction is a choice and an indictment of poor character. This one isn’t for the recovering addicts out there. This is for those who would judge them for their problem.

Addiction is Not a Choice

Alcoholism was classified as a disease by the American Medical Association in 1956, and the AMA has not changed its stance in over 60 years. The American Society of Addiction Medicine agrees. In 1987, the AMA followed up and termed addiction, in general, as a disease. The perception that addiction is a choice comes from a relatively simple place. They say, “Nobody forced you to drink or do drugs!” And admittedly, in this, they are usually correct. The first usage of drugs or alcohol is usually a voluntary – albeit peer-influenced – decision. However, having a few drinks at a party or experimenting with drugs once isn’t “addiction.” If people could try it once and walk away, addiction wouldn’t be the huge problem it is today. The fact is, these substances change your body’s chemistry and cause a series of reactions in your body that cause a loss of self-control. Saying addiction is a choice is like saying you can “choose” whether or not to fall asleep when undergoing sedation for surgery. You don’t choose to fall asleep, the substances in your body force an involuntary reaction because of internal chemical changes you can’t control. This is what addiction does as well. Nobody who has a drink or tries a drug wants to become addicted. They don’t “choose” this for themselves, just like people don’t choose to have asthma, diabetes, or hypertension.

What Stigmatizing Addiction Does to People Who Need Help

Admitting a problem is one of the most difficult things to do for someone who is struggling with substance addiction. The nature of addiction entails that it is still hidden, silent, and deniable. People in the depths of addiction tend to deny there’s a problem and withdraw from people as much as possible. If someone is talking to you about their problem, it probably means they trust you enough to be part of their support system. If it’s someone you care about, even a little bit, this is just proof that they trust you. If your response to that trust and vulnerability is to rub salt in their wounds with judgment, you’re going to drive them deeper into seclusion and make their problem even worse. Next time, they’ll be even more hesitant to open up and look for help, and by then it may be too late. Of course, some people don’t even realize what they’re doing is harmful. Open hostility isn’t nearly as common as “helpful” criticism or suggestions. But suggestions like “just toughen up,” or “be stronger than the drug” aren’t helping at all. The most important thing to understand is that addiction isn’t:

  • a choice
  • a matter of willpower
  • an issue of character
  • a failure of morals
  • a simple matter of “using vs. not using”

There is a lot that goes into addiction, and most of what causes and drives addiction is far beneath the surface, just as it is with any disease. If someone is addicted, they need help and compassion, not judgment and armchair therapy.

What You Can Actually Do to Help

If someone you know needs help to overcome their addiction, and you truly want to help, the best thing you can do is be supportive and understanding. Don’t withdraw from them – be more engaged with them than ever before. If they’re not in a alcohol addiction treatment program or support group, encourage them to go. If they do, ask them about it. Keep in their ear as often as you can. Encourage them, let them know you’re on their side, and stay positive – even if they relapse or hit a few speed bumps. On that note, stay patient. Addiction recovery is a long-term process, and it’s going to be difficult for them. They don’t just decide to quit one day and then stop having problems (remember – addiction is not a choice), they’re going to be battling with that change in brain chemistry for perhaps the rest of their lives. Don’t get frustrated if things don’t go right the first time – relapse rates are very high, but don’t let them give up – they’ll get there eventually. If you stay in their corner and stay positive, you can not only help them get sober, you can become their reason to stay sober.