Breaking Our Own Stigma Of Addiction
I have been sober for a while, but every time my “normal” world encounters my “recovery” world, I still get nervous. I still feel uncomfortable when discussing my sobriety with normie people – and even though I do it, I often still feel as if I have just shared my deepest, darkest, and dirtiest secret. And I still wonder if based on this information, the other person has now changed their view of me.
Every time I share that I am a recovering alcoholic with someone not in recovery, it is always in hopes that I may change his or her perception if they have a negative one, or that I might be the person that they will feel comfortable enough to ask for help if needed. Sometimes it comes out because I am declining an invitation to a drinking event or a drink itself. Nevertheless, I still worry a bit, but I have never had a negative response. Maybe I have been lucky, maybe it is my positive approach, maybe it is because I am the self-proclaimed recovery cheerleader! Maybe… my perception has been wrong all along, and people are more accepting of people in recovery. Whatever it is, I have found that when I tell people about my journey, I actually get lots of encouragement and support!
You see, I am open about my substance use disorder around my recovery circles, be it on the internet, or out in the public. I feel safe there, these are my people, they understand. However and even though it feels uncomfortable, I feel strongly about sharing my recovery with normie people too. Today I am a sober, and I think that the “sober” part is the most important, and one that desperately needs focus.
I truly believe that we often hinder our sobriety by our own stigmas. I believe that many of us also carry a preconceived image of an alcoholic, or an addict. I know I did! I carried a huge stigma about substance use disorder because my family always referred to it negatively. I also grew up hating my biological mother because she was afflicted by this disease. I held the same ignorant hatred towards her as my family did, until… until I became an alcoholic myself. This was so devastating to grasp that I truly believe that it kept me from seeking help, because if I admitted to having a problem that would mean that I was just like my mother. Then I get sober and I came to a great realization that my mom was not a bad person, she was a sick person that never got help that she needed. It always makes me wonder how our lives would have been different if our family was willing to help her instead of shunning her away.
I also believe that the most damaging stigma is the one we actually place on ourselves. Here we are not able to control our consumption of a substance that to most people is just a leisurely cocktail sipped with dinner. Then we wonder, why can’t we, are we that weak? Then we come into sobriety, and struggle with the shame and guilt over the tremendous wreckage we have left behind while drinking. Now, we are not only afraid of what others might think, but we also have a hard time believing that we had become that person! Even like “normal” people, we often cannot comprehend the power of our addiction, and its controlling nature. We often feel like this is the worst thing that could have ever happen to us, and it is so disgraceful that no one can ever know about it.
Accepting that we had a disease of addiction to alcohol and then quitting drinking is a huge challenge. We all long for acceptance from our family, and friends, and the society. We want to be able to share the amazing changes in our lives, yet we are not able to share those without mentioning our struggles with the addiction.
Unfortunately, I held on to my stigma for a long time. I was not one of the people who from day one were shouting from the rooftops about their newfound life in sobriety. I was petrified. I was petrified to step my foot in a 12-step meeting, I was petrified to go to rehab, and I was petrified of telling anyone about anything pertaining to my addiction and/or recovery. I found anonymity extremely helpful because it was so important for me to feel secure and protected during this very fragile time. In those days I did not feel like getting sober was an amazing decision, instead I felt lots of shame and embarrassment and I did not want to be like my mother. Admitting that I had a problem and needed help was too overwhelming.
But, I wish I had felt differently. I wish that maybe instead of holding on to my shame I could have been looking at this as any other disease and thinking, I am sick, I need help. I wish someone had told me that the journey to sobriety was courageous and empowering! I wish I knew that there were people out there who cared, and would
support me, and cheer me on, every step of the way!
Today, I am no longer anonymous, and I try not to agonize over the word, especially since the word can mean so many things to other people. To me the word describes my disease, not me. Yes, I do realize that there are many negative connotations associated with it. However, when I share my story with others, I let them know about of all the positive changes in my life and how recovery had transformed me. I try to focus on the many positives of getting clean and sober. Recovery is as amazing as running a marathon or climbing a mountain or getting an amazing job, because it gives us the opportunity to be able to do all these remarkable things.
If you, or anyone you know, is struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)*, please check out the Sober Courage menu at the top of this page for an extensive list of support groups and recovery related articles.
*Problem drinking that becomes severe is given the medical diagnosis of “alcohol use disorder” or AUD. AUD is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using (Ref: NIAAA).