What Would the World Look Like Without Addiction Stigma?

addiction stigma
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Thirteen. That’s the percentage of people with an illicit drug use disorder who received treatment for their addiction in 2019.

What happened to the other 87 percent? We don’t know everyone’s story, but we know stigma often plays a part. Stigma causes shame and fear for those struggling with addiction, and it steers them away from treatment and recovery.

Common Stories in a World With Addiction Stigma

substance use Gary started misusing painkillers after back surgery. When he couldn’t get more pills from his doctor, he switched to heroin. He could see his life spiraling out of control, but he felt helpless to do anything about it.

In a moment of courage, Gary went to his brother, Tom, for help. Gary kept the phone conversation vague, to see how Tom might react.

Gary mentioned he “had a friend” who had started using heroin but said he wanted to quit. Tom’s reaction was immediate: “Gary, get away from that guy. He’s an addict, and they never really quit. He’s probably just saying that so you’ll give him money. Cut that loser out of your life.”

Gary cut the conversation short and ended the call with tears in his eyes.

Still, he didn’t give up. Maybe my doctor will help me, he thought. He’s a professional, after all. Gary scheduled an appointment.

During the appointment, Gary started to explain his journey from painkillers to heroin, when his doctor interrupted him. “You don’t have to say anymore. I’ve heard it before. You’re an addict.”

The doctor kept talking, but Gary didn’t hear another word. Hearing someone call him an addict filled him with such shame that he shut down. He decided at that moment he’d never bring it up to anyone again.

Gary Found Addiction Stigma Within His Family

Jan also had an opioid use disorder, but her doctor reacted differently than Gary’s. He suggested Jan try Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). He referred Jan to a facility that could provide daily Suboxone doses to help control her cravings and stabilize her life.

That sounded great to Jan, so she agreed to start the treatment. But, when she told her two closest friends about it, their reaction crushed her hopes. They asked her what the point was — she was just trading one addiction for another. She supposed they were right, and the next day she skipped her appointment at the facility.

Jan Became Part of the 87 Percent Who Didn’t Receive Help

Gavin turned to drugs to escape the pain after his wife died. A nearly fatal accident and a DUI charge led him to rehab. A year later, he had come to terms with his substance use disorder and was doing well in recovery.

That is until he overheard a conversation not meant for his ears. While pulling weeds in his yard near his privacy fence, he heard two neighbors chatting.

They were discussing “that druggie next door.” They wished he would move — they didn’t want people like that in the neighborhood. They made snide remarks about his use of Uber since he didn’t have a license. Gary’s neighbors wrapped up the conversation by agreeing that neither of them would ever invite him to their poker night.

Gary stood there, frozen, his hands full of dandelions and his mind full of defeat and self-doubt. The last few months had been…SO…hard. But he had done it. He was sober, and he had started to feel hope for the future. Now, the urge to use was so powerful he didn’t know if he could overcome it.

“Why bother?” he thought. Apparently, it didn’t matter what he did — he was just the addict next door, who would always be shunned. It didn’t matter what he did.

How Would These Stories Change Without Addiction Stigma?

Struggling with an opioid use disorder, Gary calls his brother. Gary isn’t afraid to tell Tom the truth. When Gary explains his struggle, Tom responds with compassion. He offers to help Gary find a treatment center.

Feeling loved, Gary tells Tom he might take him up on that offer, but first, he’ll ask his doctor for a recommendation. At the appointment, Gary explains his situation. His doctor listens, then explains how substance use disorders affect the brain and body. He tells Gary that his struggle is common and that help is available. He and Gary work on a treatment plan and decide on the next steps.

Gary finds support from a close family member.

After Jan’s doctor recommends MAT, she tells her friends about it. Recognizing that she needs treatment, they encourage her to move forward with it. They offer to give her a ride to the facility if she needs one. Feeling understood and supported, Jan starts the Suboxone treatment and can hold down a steady job for the first time in years.

Jan finds medical direction from a compassionate physician.

compassionWhen his neighbors see Gavin being dropped off by an Uber, they strike up a conversation. They end up asking him about the ride, and Gavin openly shares why he can’t drive. One neighbor admits he also struggles with a substance use disorder and offers to give Gavin a ride to the meetings he attends on Wednesdays.

Contemplating sharing his recent grieving, the other neighbor invites Gavin to an upcoming BBQ. By the end of the conversation, Gavin is filled with renewed hope that he’s not alone, and he can — and will — continue to find hope where he can.

Gaven finds sympathetic neighbors (and a BBQ).

For information about treatment options for you or a loved one, call 800-681-1058 (Info iconWho Answers?) today.


Photos courtesy of Shutterstock

Kerry Nenn
Kerry Nenn, BSW
Expert Author, Editor
Kerry is a full-time freelance writer and author whose work has received awards both locally and nationally. Based in the Chicago area, she holds a bachelor’s degree in social work and psychology (BSW) from Evangel University. Kerry is a regular contributor to international newsletter publications, industry-leading consumer blogs, and Christian ministries.