Fighting Back Against the Stigma: 5 Loving Ways

“True love is born from understanding.”   ~Buddha

Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to watch helplessly as your child descends into addiction.  My son’s transformation from middle-school altar boy to heroin-addicted drug addict defied logic.  It was not only my desire to help him, but my curiosity about how this could happen that led me to educate myself about the disease.

People only understand from their level of perception and lack of understanding usually motivates their negativity.  What I’ve found is many people don’t know about the scientific evidence that addiction is a disease.   Stigma is based on generalizations and preconceptions instead of facts.  Once and for all we need to reverse harmful stereotypes about addiction, and only then can we start saving lives from this epidemic.

Opiate overdoses are the leading cause of death in people under 50.

Compassion will come only out of understanding and knowledge about the disease.  We need more love in this world if we are to find hope for those who are less fortunate than we are.  Let me emphasize addiction is a disease, not a moral failure.  The moral failure is merely a symptom of the disease, not an explanation of what’s wrong with the addicted.  It is a fact addicts exhibit bad behavior while they are under the influence they would not otherwise do.  It is not a fact they are choosing to be addicted.

A recent example of the stigma being perpetuated is Tiger Woods’ mugshot showing up all over social media and TV.  Tiger Woods is a legendary golfer, who was the best golfer in the world for many years.  He would not be legendary if not for his driven and compulsive nature, which is the cornerstone of an addictive personality.  We have ALL seen his demise – it’s how the disease reveals itself.  Let’s not define Tiger by his addiction or anyone else either.

No matter the situation, no one likes to be judged or devalued. 

People with substance use disorder live with terrible guilt and shame which makes addiction a lonely and humiliating experience.  It is the most socially disapproved medical condition that exists, even more than other mental illnesses.  Stigma isolates people and directly fuels their addiction.  In other words, the stigma makes it worse.  It discourages people from reaching out for help and seeking treatment for their illness.

How can we fight back against the stigma and support those affected by the disease?  In my opinion, the best way to fight back is with love, which includes compassion and understanding.

I have come up with 5 loving ways to help reduce the stigma based on my experience of having a drug addicted son:

  • PRACTICE NON-STIGMATIZING BEHAVIOR. Be kind and offer compassionate support to people who are vulnerable.  Don’t criticize the homeless or call them “junkies”.  Treat them with dignity and respect.  Speak up when someone else mistreats them.  Don’t promote or “like” derogatory remarks made about addicts on social media.  As irony would have it, Cody and I used to give money, clothes, and food to the homeless near Condies at Christmas time. He became one of them (homeless) when he was on the streets living out of his car doing drugs as a result of our tough love.  I saw him begging at a gas station one day near my home.  Broke my heart (my heart has been broken a lot).  Consider this next time you are ready to judge another. Instead of judging, lend a hand to help someone in need or an organization who is helping the addicted.
  • HAVE AN OPEN MIND. Make an effort to have an open mind and do your own research about drug dependency and how it works.  Learn about the disease if you don’t understand why “they just don’t quit”.  Read a book on addiction – we have several listed on our website under Links and Resources.  Think for yourself and be open to new truths and facts.  Just because your kids or family members do not struggle with addiction doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen to someone in your life.  Addiction doesn’t discriminate by race, class, religion, gender, age, or any other difference in human beings.  It is a universal experience that can affect any person who has the risk factors.
  • DON’T HIDE YOUR EXPERIENCE OF ADDICTION. If you have experience with addiction, don’t hide it.  Talk about it with others.  Don’t be afraid to educate them and give them resources you know about.  Most people will listen to someone they know and trust.  More often than not, they will have someone in their family who is suffering.  You could change a life by sharing your experience. The one thing you have that nobody else has is your story – your voice, your mind, your vision.  So write or draw or build or speak and share it.  True inner strength comes to those who own their story, and in service make room for that of another.
  • SHOW COMPASSION TO FAMILY MEMBERS.  Family members suffer as much as those who are addicted do.  They are likely to be depressed and want to isolate themselves.  Reach out to them.  Listen to them while withholding judgment of their situation. Believe me, they are judging themselves harshly.  I know because I did for years.  The whole experience of living with addiction severely impacts a person’s self-esteem and self-worth.  Be kind to them and show them love.  Make them feel valued, understood and appreciated.  The shame and stigma families feel may prevent them from seeking support for themselves.
  • BE AN ADVOCATE FOR CHANGE. There is still so much work to do to end the stigma.  Funding for addiction treatment is discriminatory, the medical profession fails to treat addicts properly, people fail to seek treatment, addicts are sent to jail, there are a lack of medical detoxes and affordable treatment centers, and so much more.  Take your pick and advocate for change.  Write your representative. Volunteer or donate to an organization.  Replace negative attitudes with evidence-based facts and model non-stigmatizing behavior.  Have a conversation or write a blog or song. Be the change you want to see.  You may save a life or at the very least impact a life.

In the end, the only thing that matters is how much you loved others, so comfort and love one another.  Help end the stigma.

Love heals.  Love wins.  Love is the solution.  Fight back against the stigma with love.

Mary Cucarola – July 3, 2017

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