What is Stigma?
By definition, stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. That sounds pretty awful right?
Stigma has been, and still continues to be a major problem surrounding addiction. Why would we as a society ever want to criticize or judge someone with a health condition that could kill them? Some would say that may be A misguided response or overreaction…Is it?
Throughout my life, I always felt that there were high expectations for achievement in my life. I was provided with every opportunity to meet those expectations: A private catholic elementary school, a very prestigious catholic high school, a recognized university in Boston for college were all accomplishments that not everyone can say they had the opportunity for.
With all those accomplishments also comes stress, pressure and anxiety. Unfortunately, my answer to deal with those difficult forces was drinking and using drugs.
What is so ironic is that like so many others, I used stigmatize addiction as well…before I became an addict. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and all I knew was what I saw on TV and the news – false messages about the shame and stigma of addiction. My problem was that I was not educated and as a young adult I didn’t see the need to be. Unfortunately, the problem of shame and stigma surrounding addiction is a very real one.
When I did fall prey to addiction and started to have those thoughts about how to ask for help, I became riddled with fear.
What will people think? Addiction doesn’t happen to people like me! Will my family disown me?
You would think these questions are ridiculous right? Well, they should be, but unfortunately these questions are all so common to people like me due to the stigma surrounding the disease.
When we look at addiction as a moral failing, we severely hinder someone suffering from addiction to ask for help. It can also significantly impact the services and funding we need in the recovery community to help someone achieve recovery. As you can see, stigma has more of a dramatic affect that you may have once believed.
When I finally started to reach out for help, I did it secretively. I did it with embarrassment. I did it feeling a great deal shame. No one should ever have to feel that way in seeking help with a possible fatal disease.
Let me be clear: I am not making any excuses for my behavior and the poor decisions I made knowing what the consequences would be. The reality is stigma is very real problem that cannot be ignored anymore.
When I finally got sober and cleared up, I finally saw how much stigma affected people and their families seeking help. I decided to do something about it. I along with many other courageous people in recovery said: “This is my story and I am not ashamed.”
I took a big risk. I showed my vulnerability. I let the public in. My future and my career could have been jeopardized because of the stigma surrounding the issue of addiction. But the truth is, my life in recovery would have been in jeopardy had I not spoken out and shared my story. If I hid my story due to shame, then I would have been playing right into stigmas hands. I chose to not be silent.
So, I took an even bigger leap of faith to accept an invitation from Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to participate in a statewide campaign called “State Without Stigma.” I was able to show what a face in recovery looks like with other great people on billboards and radio commercials. Our goal was to educate others and help remove the stigma surrounding the disease.
Before you turn a blind eye to someone or walk in the opposite direction of one that needs help because of the stigma of addiction, remember this is happening to your next-door neighbor, your cousin, your son, daughter, or loved one.
It happened to me. And I am committed to helping change that stigmatized viewpoint so that others can seek help and achieve recovery.