Stigma, Addiction, and Addiction Recovery

When we get stigmatized by others, or by society, it hurts.  And it also hurts when we stigmatize ourselves.

But what is “stigma?”

Let’s look at 1.) a couple of definitions of stigma, 2.) how stigma can show itself, and also 3.) how recovery is an antidotefor stigma.

First, some definitions.

The Wikipedia definition of “stigma” says:

“Social stigma is the disapproval of, or discrimination against, an individual or group based on perceived characteristics that serve to distinguish them from other members of a society.”

Oxford Languages says…

…stigma is “…a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”

…”the stigma of having gone to prison will always be with me.”

Next, let’s take a closer look at how stigma can show itself related to addiction illness.

Sometimes people might look down on or discriminate against a person based on that other person’s condition. Or what the consequences have become for that other person compared to what we have experienced.  Like, “I was never homeless” – saying it in a way where we think that other person is sicker than we are.  Or even just a worse person than we are.

We also stigmatize the “why” of addiction.  For example….Their parents did a bad job raising them.  They are incapable.  They are dirty.  Not successful.  Not educated.

But in fact, addiction can impact any and all people.

We all know everyone is different.  And that’s true not only for people who are still using, but for everyone recovering from addictions to alcohol or certain drugs.  We should remember that anyone is eligible to possibly one day have this illness…so no one person is “better than” everyone or anyone else.  We’re all different, but we’re not unique.  So in that way, we should definitely not stigmatize the person that’s not exactly like us.

It’s ok to know the truth that self-harmful acts are bad.  And knowing that is not the same thing as stigma or stigmatizing.  And it’s also not the same as judging and stigmatizing people.

We can ask ourselves some important questions…

  • Do we have a lack of understanding about the person? Do we really understand their addiction fully?  If we don’t fully understand, we might be more inclined to judge and stigmatize that person.
  • Do we have a secret? Do we have shame that keeps our secret hidden?  And have we internalized the stigma from our society?  Did our family system teach us to keep some things secret, and did those secrets gain power over us?  If these are true, we might be more inclined to stigmatize ourselves.

Recovery is a great antidote to stigma.  When we are new to sobriety, new to recovery, or hurting it can be super great and uplifting to hear from someone else.  This is true when that other person gets vulnerable and shares what it was like, and what worked for them.  This can also help when we’re much further along in our program but feeling down.

  • It can be super encouraging to hear from others when it sounds like our story.
  • It can be healing to hear what’s real and true even if what they say seems “bad”.
  • It’s like the imperfections inside the story seem to help us.

When people get solid in recovery, they tend to share their story.  This helps others.  And helps the world.  Stigma starts breaking, because people start to realize it really can impact everybody.

And we should also acknowledge that destigmatizing addiction doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of those in recovery but to each of us in society. Learn about the disease of addiction. Have compassion for others. And share what you know about addiction with others.

Sometimes it just takes some proper information and understanding to get someone on the right path to not stigmatize others.  And to make our society a little kinder and more helpful.

Sometimes, simple facts can help overcome stigma.  Here are some of our favorite resources for people, information, and encouragement.

  • Heroes In Recovery
  • Addiction Professionals of North Carolina (APNC)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  • Faces and Voices of Recovery (FAVOR) Upstate
  • Recovery Communities of North Carolina (RCNC)

What can you do today to help destigmatize addiction and addiction recovery?