At the time of writing, there are 7.53 billion people applying their own individual filter to the world (apart from the few truly enlightened yogis who see the world as it is, not as they are). If we reflect on this, we can see that addiction stigma is a belief shared both by those who buy into and project it as part of their filter, and those who are victims of it. It acts as a collective judgment story in which millions of us partake. Even those of us who see it for what it is and suffer it, feed the flames every time we change what we really want to say, or hide our personal histories for fear of being stigmatised ‘with all the others’. This is the secret voice we haven’t yet made peace with. It lives deep within us and drives many of our thoughts around recovery and addiction – I know because it’s in me too.
Over the last few years, I have learnt that it is possible to step out of its grasp and set ourselves free, but in order to do so, we must do battle with stigma’s ancient cousin – shame. If stigma is the collective story we tell each other, then shame is part of the personal story we tell ourselves. This is one of the first things we must begin to overcome in order to start truly healing from addiction or trauma. Left inside us for too long, it becomes toxic and feeds on more of itself, like a dog chasing its own tail.
As movements around the world which tackle stigma and shame head on continue to grow – from ‘me too’ to ideas such as ‘recovering out loud’, we seem to finally be entering a social environment which is conducive to breaking down stigmas around, addiction, mental health and trauma. And yet, there is still much to be done. It seems to me that so much of the personal shame we feel around our addictions is directly related to its stigmatisation in the public sphere which is both common and inconsistent is its nature. How can it be, for example, that alcohol appears to be the only substance on the planet for which you are often publicly lambasted for stopping? Even if it’s really, truly and deeply hurting you. When was the last time you heard someone being told they were no fun because they no longer smoke cigarettes, or crack for that matter? How can it be that some people can’t tell their place of work the truth about their past for fear of being labelled? And yet, the same person in a different context is heralded a hero? Could it be that on some level we all know how messed up we are but we are unable to admit it for fear of being labelled ourselves. Labelled with the very same stigma that played a part in our being messed up.
It took me a long time to be truly honest with my inner circle about my drinking because I felt shame and feared upsetting them. In truth, it was only through the words on my blog that I managed to truly get the ball rolling with my family. Why? I didn’t want it to cause loved ones pain and stigma is one of the key reasons my story had and has to the power to do so.
It is stigma that places the worst things about addiction purely in the hands of ‘alcoholics’ or ‘real addicts’ while many on the fringes (who really are in trouble but perhaps haven’t lost their job or marriage yet) march on in denial for fear of being stigmatised as one of ’them’. Comments I frequently receive like, ‘But you weren’t really addicted’ or ‘How bad did it really get, though?’, in the face of a story that clearly indicates acute and painful addiction, are the outcome of assigning these behaviours to ‘certain people’ usually ‘alcoholics’ and if you’re not on the street drinking from a brown paper bag, ‘It can’t have been that bad’ (again, I quote). It’s time to realise that the spectrum of addiction doesn’t just affect a stigmatised few, but all of us. Look around you on a Saturday night and you will see. It’s so easy to hide in plain site. Society actively supports it at this point.
“These inconsistencies are the fuel of stigma and they feed on society’s addictions”
Usually, when something is messing people up, be it sugar, heroin or Governments; we blame that thing for causing harm. However, with alcohol, we have flipped this idea on its head. We’re surrounded by posters and adverts telling us to ‘moderate’ or ‘drink responsibly’ which firmly places the responsibility of harm with the user. The message? If we can’t do this, it’s our fault for not being to keep a handle on our drinking. These inconsistencies are the fuel of stigma and they feed on society’s addictions. Do you think we would blame the person who drinks for ‘not knowing how to control themselves and moderate like everyone else’ if it were a fringe drug that millions upon millions weren’t addicted to and are too ashamed or too deeply in denial to admit it? We don’t consider addicted cocaine users weak willed jellyfish, we see them as victims of an addiction trap. The truth is, it’s less socially acceptable to be doing lines at your kid’s Christening than drinking champagne in the morning, not because of the substance but because of the perceived harm and our perception of the drug.
I don’t have answers, but I do have thoughts and sharing them as much as possible feels right. In my experience, honesty and trust are the opposite of stigma as they help to break through the ignorance and shame which it causes. I know that through being honest with myself and entrusting my story to those around me in its most raw and uncensored form, regardless of the stigma, I can help, if only a little. One of the most powerful realisations I have had recently is the realisation that I have been complicit in this stigma even while working to overcome it. I no longer listen to the voice that asks me to filter who I am unless doing so would put my livelihood at risk.
This is work. Important work and it won’t do itself. What’s your part to play? In what way are you upholding the stigma which you would love to see crumble? In writing this, I am reminded just how complicated and beautiful it is to be human. Evolution is never easy but it is inevitable and we are finally becoming self aware enough to steer the ship.
Where we end up is as yet a mystery but I am convinced the stormy seas in which we live are a sign of clear skies to come.
About our author:
Sam is currently building his online blog ‘unaddicted.co.uk’ as a way to help anyone who may be struggling with their relationship to alcohol (in any form). Having spent years under the spell of alcohol, he understands the feeling of helplessness that can come from addiction. Thankfully, a series of life circumstances, the words of others and seemingly disconnected events conspired to finally set him free. This inspired him to put his words on paper in the hope that he may help a few people along the way.
After returning to the UK after 8 years living abroad, he is continuing his career as a teacher and coach. The idea that his story and outlook could help even a few to realise that leaving alcohol behind is a cool and subversive choice is one of his main drives and he’s working hard to try and make a small difference with his writing.