Destigmatising Addiction

There are many obstacles to overcome alcohol addiction, and one of the biggest challenges is the stigma attached to it ……. Yes, still! 

Stigma can sadly stop people from getting the help they need and this is what bothers me the most. This stigma refers to damaging, inaccurate stereotypes and assumptions about people that cannot control their alcohol use. People we know nothing about. Nothing about their situation, circumstances, life events or what they may have been through or had to overcome. 

Anyone suffering from addiction or problems with alcohol are just like anyone else. They come from all communities and backgrounds. Addiction does not discriminate. I think the root of this stigma is from the mistaken belief that addiction is a choice. The science is undeniable and consistent in demonstrating that alcohol alters the brain and is a progressive illness. 

This really isn’t a lifestyle choice. In what world do people think a person would choose to face the consequences of losing everything or possibly death? We know that someone struggling with their alcohol use can take responsibility for their actions and work towards change but it would make a huge difference if these people could do this without being made to feel bad about their condition on top of an already very difficult task. 

Stigma is literally a public health issue; it contributes to high death rates and mental health concerns. It results in avoidance, rejection, discrimination and prejudice. Stigma is very rarely based on facts, people are made to feel less than and a failure despite often being very unwell in mind and body. Let’s remember that people are people first before they develop an addiction or problem. 

It’s untrue that everyone must be violent, argumentative, a failure, lazy, weak or irresponsible. These stereotypes that people often jump to. Alcoholism has a very wide spectrum of severity; it is far from black or white. The reality is that alcohol problems and addiction can stem from a variety of uncontrollable factors including mental health problems, trauma and also genetics. 

One of the biggest dangers of such stereotypes is that if someone thinks they don’t fit the exact stereotype and so do not have a ‘bad enough’ problem which is fuelled by denial, they will not seek help. With such harsh views from society many people are made to feel ashamed and will choose to struggle alone rather than admit to the problem and have to face the labels and criticism.  

No-one develops a problem with alcohol because they are terrible people or weak. It makes as much sense to blame someone for this condition as it does to blame someone for developing diabetes. The transition from social drinking to alcoholic drinking can occur without the person even realising. Some still view alcoholism as some kind of over-indulgence. People who just wilfully engage in bad behaviour. 

I completely understand how difficult it is for someone who has never experienced a problem with alcohol to understand this loss of control. I never expect anyone to understand something they have not been through, why would they? However, we can still show empathy and kindness. It’s human nature to want people around us to think well of us and so it’s tough to be judged so negatively.   

Even the term ‘alcoholic’ will put someone off admitting they have a problem due to the association to so many negative characteristics. The truth behind the stereotype…. The homeless person we imagine on the park bench who is drunk all day and cannot hold down a job or a place to live. Such a tiny fraction of people actually fit this profile. 

Most individuals are in fact high functioning and very often outwardly successful, even though they are struggling. What I have also found over the years is the quite shocking reactions to those in recovery. People who have made a choice to change something that was negatively impacting their life and their health. Do those who choose not to drink have to unwittingly go undercover? 

I have this conversation often with clients about what others will think if they are not drinking. Many people encounter judgment for choosing sobriety and are made to feel that they have to explain or excuse not drinking alcohol. Why should anyone have to live with the societal demand to explain a very personal decision? Not only then are people battling addiction often made to feel devalued, but those who are recovering still have to endure ridicule and judgment. 

In the very early days, I found it difficult myself to tell certain people that I was in recovery. What would they think? Would they judge me? As if somehow by me turning down an alcoholic drink imposed on or threatened their own enjoyment. The reaction to saying I didn’t drink caused such confusion and shock from some that it sometimes felt like I had just mentioned casually that I had ran over their pet cat…… on purpose!! 

 I very quickly realised that I had nothing to explain other than that I don’t drink. There are many reasons why someone may not drink alcohol but the most bizarre thing of all is that alcohol is the only drug you actually have to justify not taking even though it kills more people than all illicit drugs combined!! 

Society expects us all to be able to regularly use an addictive drug without becoming addicted to it. If you do, that’s it, you have failed the challenge, you must be a really terrible person and it’s all your fault. The reality, there is nothing wrong with people who have problems with alcohol other than the alcohol problem, which is treatable. The response to anyone who has fought to overcome this condition should be compassion and support instead of criticism.  

It really does take a lot of strength to go against the grain. To stop seeking ways to numb it all out and live life on life’s terms. If drinking is making you unhappy, forget the stereotypes, stigma and labels. It’s all about our perception of ‘their’ perception and this is the problem. The fact is when you are in sobriety you are working on something really amazing that you should be proud of.  

I never look for approval from others. I made a great choice that enabled me to live a better life. If others don’t get it, I’m fine with that. Very often what others think of you actually says more about them than it does about you.  

Coming through addiction and reaching sobriety does not represent a failure, it represents success. If you are still struggling, never give up, and if you have achieved sobriety remember that it is all about progression, not perfection. 

Recovery is gratitude, integrity, honesty, fearlessness and above all a second chance. So, to the stigma that still, after all this time surrounds addiction, I would say that no one’s opinion of you matters more than your own.  To be yourself in a world that is always trying to make you something else has to be the greatest accomplishment of all.