In the struggle to overcome addiction, shame is one of our worst enemies. Denial may keep us from recognizing that there is a problem, but shame keeps us from asking for help.
Anita Devlin’s recent opinion piece on PBS Newshour, “The shame of addiction turned my life into a lie. Here’s what saved my family” sheds an important light on this dangerously powerful issue. When Anita’s 17-year-old son, Michael, became addicted to painkillers after a series of surgeries, at first, she denied it. She feared friends and family would think she was a terrible parent.
Shame is powerful. Shame makes us quiet. And being quiet means being alone. No one can do this alone. And we will never solve the opioid epidemic if we continue to let judgment fester. No one should be afraid to ask for help, for fear of being blamed or shamed. No one is immune to this insidious disease.
Anita speaks a lot about shame and how by not coming to terms with her child's addiction she was unknowingly contributing to the stigma. Many families of those suffering from this disease are doing the same. Staying silent spurs stigma.
A recent Harris Poll confirms the stigma of addiction is pervasive and persistent, following those living in recovery for years to come. Many of the adults participating in the survey report they’d be very or somewhat uncomfortable around someone they knew who was two or more years into recovery, and sober. This is especially true of trusted relationships: A son or daughter’s fiancé (50% of parents), a primary care physician (47% of total adults), or a child’s teacher (43% of parents). Is it any wonder that people won’t admit to being in recovery, much less asking for help when in active addiction?
Addiction is often seen as a moral failing, or perhaps a failure of the will, that can be overcome if only those suffering in addiction were strong enough or tried hard enough to quit. Even the process of recovery is misunderstood. The same survey found that two-thirds of adults (66%) believe addiction can be "cured," even though the American Medical Association recognizes addiction as a chronic disease that can be successfully managed, though never fully cured.
Eliminating the stigma of addiction is at the core of everything we do at Caron Treatment Centers. Addiction truly is a chronic illness, and it deserves to be treated as such. We treat patients with respect. We apply evidence-based research to find the best, individualized treatments. We work to address co-occurring conditions such as anxiety or depression using integrated treatment programs. We help patients understand that recovery is a life-long journey, with its ups and downs. We give them tools to help manage their illness, to retrain their brains to respond to stressful situations with healthier choices.
There is no shame in having cancer or diabetes, and those who suffer are not ostracized for their moral failings. Neither should those in addiction or living in recovery, yet the stigma of addiction prevents all of us from thinking clearly about how to ask, or how to give, help. As a country, the shame of addiction prevents us from dealing with addiction honestly and effectively.
In Anita’s case, help became possible because a friend happened to be visiting when a crisis occurred. Suddenly, the horrible secret was out, and Anita told the full story to her friend. The friend’s response? To reach out to Caron for help. Happily, Michael accepted the help and we’re thrilled to see him in recovery for seven years now and thriving.
By Bradley F. Sorte, MBA, MSW