The stigmatisation and misunderstanding of addiction can only be overcome when recovering addicts are prepared to share their stories, according to Beth Burgess. She argues until more people join her, the vicious circle of secrecy and shame will continue.
The British have a very special way of rooting for the underdog. We cheer for giant-killing football teams, celebrate the unlikely winner and still revel in the evacuation of Dunkirk. It is in our stories, our culture and our history to want to see the smaller and the poorer, conquer. We delight in rags-to-riches stories, survival against the odds and tales of redemption. So why don’t we do the same with recovering addicts?
Addiction is an illness but while you see cancer survivors and people with missing limbs running marathons and sailing around the world, recovering addicts do not celebrate like that. In fact we do not celebrate much: as addicts we hide away, getting treated secretly and anonymously for our ‘shameful’ problem. It is not seen as inherently shameful to have any other illness, so why this one?
The stigmatisation of addicts is so great that even when you have beaten the illness and are in recovery, you are still not encouraged to stand up and be proud of being a survivor. Perhaps it is also in our stories, culture and history to stigmatise addicts. That may be because we fail to understand them.
Alcoholism in particular is ridiculed and mocked in a way that you would never see with people suffering from any other illness. Alternatively the media parades horror stories of excess and ‘shames’ celebrities with tales of their misadventures. The media bears a huge responsibility for the widespread misunderstanding perpetuated around addiction. People who party too hard or get caught drink driving are not necessarily addicts. They may not necessarily know how to cope with fame or wealth or stress and end up living their lives in a state of excess. That is their choice and many of the people who we now label as addicts really are not. Addiction is not a choice.
My friends' grandparents were both extremely heavy drinkers. They lived for the pub and drank for most of their lives. One day their doctor told them both that if they continued to drink they would die soon. One of them stopped. The other didn’t and died of an alcohol-related disease. Addiction is characterised by an absolute compulsion that overtakes everything else. It is not the same as problem drinking. It is not even on the same continuum.
At the moment it is impossible to predict who is going to become an addict and who will not, although certain patterns can be detected in hindsight. I believe the roots of addiction lie in epigenetics; there seems to be a triggering event in all addicts’ lives that switches the addiction gene on. It is usually a trauma or something of that nature. Surely that is something to be sympathised with, not ridiculed?
But just because we throw the addict label around indiscriminately, this does not take away from the fact that addiction is not an uncommon problem, one that can strike anyone. Addiction can affect your postman, your doctor, your local shopkeeper or your professor. It is not just the people we read about in the newspapers. Either the local crackhead who causes crime and chaos, or the celebrity starlet with a champagne problem. Addiction has no bounds of gender, colour, class, age, religion or race.
Addiction should be treated like any other illness. But instead, addicts choose or are advised to be anonymous and join secret groups to recover. We are not supposed to share our stories of recovery – let alone addiction – with the outside world.
Professionals working within the field are told not to self-disclose if they have a history of addiction. As a practitioner and former addict, I believe that constitutes one of our worst practices. How on earth are addicted clients supposed to gain hope and feel they have a recovery worth fighting for, if the professionals treating them are not allowed to share their stories? This does not encourage others to see a bright future when the potential role models around them are forced to hide away.
This is where the problem lies. In order to challenge stigma and promote understanding many former addicts choose to work from within the addiction field. Recovering addicts have to be prepared to stand up and tell their stories. Some of us are proud of our recovery, and communities and initiatives are starting to spring up among those committed to celebrating their recovery from addiction, such as the National Recovery Walk. When I write about this subject, often the responses I receive are anonymous and along the lines of ‘Good for you’ or ‘I wish I could do that’ or ‘I would but I have kids to think of’. This vicious cycle will only be broken when enough of us stand up, unashamed and ready to educate.
The tide may be turning but there is a long way to go. We need to continue to strive for the destigmatisation of addiction. Again, I am happy to start by standing up and saying I am an addict in recovery and I’m damn proud thank you very much. Talk to me about it, ask me questions, let me give you hope and understanding. I am proud of my recovery and I do not care who knows it. But I wish the rest of you would join me. Please?
Beth Burgess is an author, a speaker and the founder of Smyls Recovery Coaching. Her mission is to destigmatise addiction, and to help addicts overcome their challenges and believe in themselves.