My name is Chelsy and I am not my addiction. I do not have HIV or Hepatitis. My teeth are not decaying, I am not homeless, and I am not a prostitute. I have had issues with substance abuse, I am an addict, but that is not the only thing I am. I am a college graduate, I am giving, and I am really happy. My past has always been something I’ve had issues discussing with others. I don’t want them to associate me with negativity or look at me through a different filter. The stigma associated with addiction is a harmful one that we need to get past, both as a society and as people struggling with substance abuse.
But how do you truly understand addiction if it’s something you’ve never faced?
I thought that addicts were bad people who lived in alleys when I was a kid, had terrible morals, and a bad past that caused them to use, and eventually abuse. As I grew up, I became more interested in the substances around me because they were incredibly attainable. I figured I could just do it for fun and it wouldn’t encompass my entire life-like the drug addict alley dwellers. Unfortunately I was wrong, and I came to depend on them.
The reality of addiction is that it’s a disease that affects the pleasure and communication centers of the brain. This brain manipulation makes it incredibly difficult for addicts to quit because their brain has been manipulated into craving it, despite negative affect. Why do these substances have such a tight grip on some but not others? Our biology, social environment, and physical development all have a part in this phenomenon although the exact reason hasn’t been pinpointed. In my case I have a history of addiction in my family, lived in an environment where substance abuse was common, and was young enough for my brain to not be fully developed and thus more susceptible to chemical substances rewiring it.
To recover from addiction appropriately, addicts need to be accountable and take responsibility for their substance abuse. I understand the factors that cause me to be susceptible to addiction, but I also take responsibility for the first time I used, for the mistakes I made during that time in my life, and for my recovery. Addicts can’t blame their problems on biology or their surroundings, but they do need to understand where these things stem from.
Guilt and shame are incredibly common emotions for addicts. Many addicts find themselves making poor decisions and doing terrible things outside of their sober morals while they are using. This is why 12-step programs involve an admittance of wrongdoing and willingness to make amends. Naturally, guilt and shame are associated with this aspect of recovery, but the added stereotyping of addiction in our culture adds to that feeling of shame at a time where emotional stability is already shaky.
Many programs designed to prevent the use of drugs use scare tactics to deter young people from ever going near a substance. This tends to deter people who need help with their addiction from coming forward for fear of persecution. These scare tactics have been said not to work in some cases and are doing negative things for addiction stigma.
In reality, addiction wears many different faces. For some addiction is much quieter, mine definitely was. My struggles were mostly internal and not giant showy instances of horror and darkness. There are many functioning addicts who hold jobs, take care of their kids, and brush their teeth regularly. Addiction doesn’t always mean substance use; it can also mean sex addiction, tobacco addiction, or gambling addiction. Addiction tends to be secretive and shameful for some but at the forefront of existence for others. The point being: there isn’t a textbook picture of addiction that fits everyone.
Opening the channels of communication, promoting honest conversation about the topic, and being open-minded on what addiction means is a great start to changing this view in society. Taking the steps to beat addiction and not have it take a front row seat to life is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated, not feared. For addicts, take a chance and work to have a more open dialogue about your journey to sobriety. For others, open your mind and ask questions about addiction, do your research, and make a conscience effort to look beyond the stereotypes. Remember that addicts and former addicts are not the stereotyped people you envision in your mind.
I still struggle with the stigma associated with this part of my life, but I am making an effort to be more transparent about my struggles. It wasn’t easy, I made a lot of mistakes, and proved some of those stereotypes right. I also proved a lot of them wrong and still work to do that. My addiction doesn’t define me and it shouldn’t define others either.