Addiction is a disease. Unfortunately, that truth still does not resonate with most Americans. All too frequently, society blames the person, not the illness. In turn, the addict, powerless to control his urges, all too willingly accepts the shame.
This flawed mindset has greatly contributed to our nation’s current addiction epidemic. Who wants to support treatment and social programs for “derelicts” who can’t control themselves? Who has the courage to seek out treatment when doing so will brand them for life, making it difficult to find jobs and have relationships in our hyper-social media world?
This deadly cycle needs to be broken and the message spread; otherwise the current treatment system will fall under the tremendous weight of ever-growing consequences. Things are fast approaching a tipping point.
I recently had a conversation with a yacht broker who was advertising a boat that just came onto the market. The owners were an older couple, and I innocently asked why they were selling. He told me their boat was named after their son who had recently died from a drug overdose. Their son’s death had caused the end of their marriage; they were selling their assets and splitting up, and could no longer bear the sight of the boat.
I asked if I could meet with and talk to them, but my friend said the subject was taboo. The parents felt so much shame about how their son died that they told their friends he had died of heart failure. Nothing can heal the heart of grieving parents, and their guilt and shame only made matters worse.
Stories like this are all too common and, sadly, symbolic of the problem. These parents were trapped in the mindset that somehow their son’s addiction was their fault or that their son had a choice. They now share his “shame and blame.”
They must have felt helpless while their son was still alive, unsure of how and where to reach out for assistance. Perhaps if they’d understood addiction for the disease that it is, things might have turned out differently. The responsibility to ensure that things do turn out differently lies squarely on the shoulders of those of us working in the field of addiction.
One of the biggest hurdles to this is that, unlike with other chronic diseases, an addict or alcoholic typically doesn’t schedule an appointment with a doctor looking for a diagnosis of addiction while others, fearing they may have diseases such as diabetes or hypertension, will seek out help immediately.
Additionally, our current treatment model fails to identify addiction in its earliest stages when it’s most easily treatable. Many primary care physicians and assistants are not trained to be proactive in questioning patients with early signs of addiction. Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that many patients have the attitude that their drug and alcohol usage is no one else’s business.
Too many families have been destroyed and too many lives have been lost to this disease. The time for change is NOW. The US Surgeon General issued a report this past November entitled Facing Addiction in America, which emphasizes this critical point: Addiction is a brain disorder, plain and simple; and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
It took 100 years for women to get voting rights, 50 years for real changes in civil rights, but look at the LBGTQ community. It wasn’t long ago those in the LBGTQ community felt compelled to hide their sexual orientation, and yet together they affected change in what, 15 years? This community has shown that public opinion can be dramatically and quickly transformed.
Societal change is needed to eliminate the stigma of addiction. Those of us working in the recovery industry need to stand up and make that change happen quickly. While there are approximately 23 million addicts in the US, only two million sought treatment last year. They deserve compassion, not judgment. After all, we don’t blame and shame people with other chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia or anxiety disorder.
We need to ask ourselves what we can do to make a difference. If we can help eliminate the “blame and shame,” we will increase early detection and be better positioned to make an impact on the addict’s life when it’s most effective.