The social stigma attached to addiction and addiction recovery inflicts innumerable harms to individuals, families, organizations, and communities. Two people in recovery recently emailed me sharing quite different dilemmas—each flowing from stigma-induced caricatures of addiction and recovery.
In the first instance, people had no difficulty believing the individual’s addiction story because of his numerous, and quite public, drug-related falls from grace. Yet these same people withheld belief in his recovery status years into his stable recovery. Rumors periodically spread that he was using again—rumors that seemed impossible for him to source or stop. Normal sicknesses triggered suspicions of drug use. Any time anything went temporarily missing at a family gathering or at his workplace, suspicion immediately turned to him. Job promotions were withheld on the grounds that he might not be able to handle the stress of added responsibilities. People, as if walking on eggshells, perceived him as fragile and that the least stressor might plunge him into his past. He discovered that he was charged more for health insurance and denied life insurance because of answering truthfully about his past treatment for addiction. In all these situations, his addiction status was believed because he fit many of the preconceived notions of what an “addict” looked like, but his recovery status was denied because people believed that permanent recovery from addiction was not possible (e.g., “Once an addict, always an addict”), at least in his case.
In the second instance, a woman reported that she was denied recovery status because people would not believe that she had ever been addicted due to her impeccable appearance, high level of social and professional functioning, and her lack of common addiction consequences (hospitalizations, arrests, etc.). Family and friends attributed any perceived excessive alcohol and drug use on her part to transient job stress, depression, or marital strain and were most uncomfortable seeing her life in terms of addiction and recovery. Professionals in her life (e.g., her physicians, clergy, and varied psychotherapists) all discounted her need for support specific to addiction recovery. Ironically, she encountered similar responses from some members of the recovery mutual aid societies through which she sought help. Many there doubted her addiction status because of the shorter duration of her drug use and the absence of late-stage addiction consequences. Denial of her addiction and thus her recovery status all flowed from the fact that she did not look like or talk like the dominant, socially misconstrued images of an “addict,” nor did her style of recovery match those who lived their lives cloistered within a closed recovery culture.
So you finally achieve what everyone around you has been hoping for only to have few believe that you are actually there, or you spend far too long transcending your own denial or minimization of addiction only to have others convince you that alcohol and other drugs were not your REAL problem. Such are the quandaries and paradoxes people experience in their journeys from addiction to recovery.
That is also why being nested within a community of shared experience, mutual respect, and reciprocal support can be such an important dimension of the recovery process. For some, it takes a village to safeguard the journey out of brokenness to a place of healing and wholeness. The scales of sustained addiction versus sustained recovery are as likely to be tipped by the availability of such healing sanctuaries as by personal characteristics. Part of the job of recovery advocates is creating such sanctuaries and educating the larger community about the real potential for permanent recovery and the growing varieties of recovery experience.
Printed with the permission of William L. White.