Substance Abuse and the Stigma of Disease: How to Beat It
By Bill Remak
Does a stigma around substance abuse really harm others? People assume a variety of attitudes about others, especially if they have no life experience or framework that gives reference to their own identity and quality of life. They cannot understand the conditions and emotions that people carry that impinge on their ability to cope with life’s challenges. As a result, individuals with little to no empathy belittle, scorn, or alienate people who are different. This is one of the brutal traits that perpetrate the many examples of man’s inhumanity to man that we read about in the newspapers and study in a course of history. Being different is not the problem, rather the perception others have about those differences is the problem. It is the root of much of the insensitivity that people have about drugs or being sick, or physically or mentally outside the realm of what is considered well or normal. Jokes, prejudice, indifference, resenting the presence of a person, and shunning often precede violence.
A person barely coping with an illness or having difficulty navigating their recovery from prescription drugs, illicit drugs, or alcohol are rarely acknowledged for the efforts they make to get a handle on their situation by those outside the professional network of medical and mental health workers in the recovery field.
One of the first steps to get the upper hand is in understanding what stigma is and how it becomes embedded in behavior. Once you have a grasp on that, the impact can be reduced by demonstrating to those who have adopted misleading and false information that the conclusions that have been established do not apply to you, or is a result of stereotyping people because they are trying to fill a void of knowledge or experience that they are lacking in their life. Tell your story. Make it real. Don’t be afraid that your experience will offend someone, but rather take on the role of educating them and relieving that person of the ignorance that they live with. You are doing them a favor by educating them about the day-to-day difficulties of recovery and dispelling the myths that are out there. Show that it is hard work to recover and create a dramatic shift in changing the course of your life, and that there are great benefits to reap and success to be had. You are also showing that you are a human being just like them, and that they too may have vulnerabilities that could drive them toward similar paths.
Once others begin to understand that your quality of life is changing and that the actions you are taking are making a difference, they will be able to identify with the positive action and their negative notions may begin to turn around. So if you think there is nothing you can do about stigma, think again. Be an ambassador for the program that is helping better your life, and acknowledge the team effort it takes to pull up your friends and loved ones because these values are very well respected, no matter who you are. You will encounter people from time to time who have no compassion and are bent on hate, so realize it is their problem and don’t get hung up on it. In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.”