Stigma: What Does It Do?

By Mary Cucarola – 8/4/20

“Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment”. ~~Brene Brown

When you lose a child to addiction, whether it be to the streets or to overdose, you spend countless hours thinking about what you could have done differently; any moment or decision that would have made a difference and changed the outcome. You beat yourself up for not being able to save them and think it’s your fault, while being heartbroken at the same time.

You blame yourself for enabling or not enabling, for giving tough love or not giving tough love, for sending them to rehab or not sending them to rehab at all.  You feel guilty for drinking wine in the days before or days after they were conceived, wondering if it is your fault for their addiction. You blame yourself for being a working mom or letting them have too much sugar on Halloween.

There is no rhyme nor reason for your obsessive thoughts; you just know you did something wrong to produce an addict. You feel humiliated when people call your child a junkie, a drunk, or a loser.  No wonder you want to keep it a secret.

You feel shame, and more shame.  You ask yourself; would this happen if my child had cancer?  You already know the answer; absolutely not.  The looks on your friend’s and neighbor’s faces would be that of empathy and compassion, not judgment and disrespect. They tell you addicts have a choice, so it’s different than cancer.

You stay silent because you know the disease of addiction is misunderstood but you don’t feel up to explaining it to everyone.

If you haven’t loved someone who struggles with addiction, you are fortunate. You ride an emotional roller coaster day in and day out, trying to find a balance in your own life, which feels impossible.  It compromises your health; it ruins marriages and relationships.  It wrecks your social life.  It dampens your spirit. You grieve the person they used to be and grieve them while they are alive, fearful of their death.  You grieve them after they die and try to figure how you will live without them.

You dig deep to find the answers, where there are few to be found.

Addiction is an illness, which many do not understand or are not willing to learn the facts. It is easier for them to stay ignorant and judge it as a moral failing.  Scientific facts prove that it is a brain disease. The changes in the brain chemistry cause users to have intense cravings and make it hard to stop using.  Brain imaging show these chemical changes in the brain of a substance abuser.

What is stigma? I love this definition by Shatterproof in its movement to end addiction stigma.

“It is society’s negative attitudes toward a group of people, creating an environment where those addicted are discredited and isolated. These attitudes are formed by prejudices, stereotypes, and discrimination, which contribute to the stigma overall. Self-stigma occurs when people internalize and accept negative stereotypes.  It turns a whole person into someone who feels broken with little or no self-worth.”

Society’s negative attitudes can prevent people from getting the help they need or even reaching out for help in the first place.  Education is key to ending the stigma.  It helps to keep people sober, too.  Living as a recovered substance user, they are often judged by those who are not educated, wrongly assuming relapse is bound to happen and that the person has a “bad” history and is not redeemable.  Such nonsense.

I lost my son almost seven years ago to an opiate overdose.  I’ve had people tell me that getting him help (rehab) made him worse, after I spent hundreds of hours looking for the right treatment and thousands of dollars paying for it.  I tell them that my son asked to go to rehab the first time because he told me he couldn’t stop drinking on his own.  He was only 21 years old. They look at me like I am lying to them, when I am not.

I’ve had someone imply that I enabled my son to death.  I’ve been told he was entitled and given too much as a kid.  I’ve listened to a therapist say he was hedonistic.  I’ve witnessed another therapist give up on him because he was too “far gone” to reach.

I was told by a local policeman that he was a “bad kid”, and I should give up on him.  I listened to a sheriff advise us that jail is the best rehab in the world. I’ve been given the evil eye from an ICU nurse who told me he was lucky she saved him (I thought that was her job).

I’ve been told addiction is not a disease but a choice made by losers who can’t control themselves.  I’ve been avoided and ignored by friends and acquaintances.  Fortunately, never by my family, because I have one of the most accepting, educated, and loving families anyone ever had.  I know I am lucky because not everyone has this kind of support.

I’ve been made to feel guilty and ashamed of myself and my son over and over again. I can’t imagine how bad he felt about himself.  There were many times I wanted to give up, too.  But I haven’t given up because somebody has to give a voice to my son’s disease.  My son did not want to be addicted; he called it his beast and he kept trying to rid himself of it.

So, what does stigma do?  It hurts people.  It is cruel and unloving.  It causes heartache.  It causes depression.  It can lead to relapse.  It can lead to suicide.  It can lead to overdose. It destroys lives. It’s not right.  It’s wrong.

So, let’s stop it.

Instead, let’s normalize recovery for survivors as we do with any other disease.  Let’s mourn those we lose with respect and give their families the love and support they deserve.  Let’s stop this shamefest now.  Let’s move to end the stigma together.

Mary Cucarola – 8/4/20

Comments 5

  1. This disease sucks. I’m glad you do what you do. The world needs to hear it. I love you Mary.

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