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The stigma of addiction and how to talk and celebrate your recovery.
September 20, 2016

The Stigma of Addiction — and How to Talk About Your Recovery

The stigma of addiction and how to talk and celebrate your recovery.“Stigma” is a common phenomenon with drug or alcohol addiction. The term stigma refers to the negative, often false stereotyping and discrimination that people with substance use disorders (SUDs) receive, in contrast to those with other diseases requiring treatment. These prejudicial views manifest themselves in various ways, and can result in people with diagnosable, treatable SUDs not getting professional help.

Another consequence of this stigmatization is that those in recovery from drugs and alcohol face an additional challenge in talking about their illness and how they found recovery. This article offers some pointers about how to talk about your recovery, given the prevalence and impact of stigma.

How Stigma Can Affect Those in Recovery

Knowing how to talk about your recovery begins with an awareness of how stigma affects people with SUDs. Below are some of the ways stigmatization of drug and alcohol addicts occurs, according to an article in The Fix:

  • People fail to seek treatment.
  • Those who seek treatment fail to get adequate medical care.
  • Federal funding for addiction treatment has traditionally been significantly lower than for other medical illnesses.
  • Even the mental health profession ostracizes people with addictive disorders, often denying care to those using drugs and alcohol on the basis of a chemical dependency.
  • People with SUDs have historically often ended up in jail rather than in treatment.

For those in recovery, the fall out of stigma can mean the following, according to the same article:

  • During substance abuse treatment, they may receive shaming messages that can, in turn, lead to poorer recovery outcomes.
  • They are “always under suspicion,” meaning that even in long-term, stable recovery, they face others’ presumption that at any moment they could relapse.
  • They can often have a harder time finding and keeping jobs and accessing public benefits, because of a past drug offense on their record or time spent in jail as opposed to treatment.

Stigma can cause additional sources of pain and suffering for those with a substance abuse problem. Research compiled in the journal Addiction indicates that stigma contributes to several adverse outcomes for people with SUDs, including:

  • “poor mental and physical health,” as reported in a study in the international journal, Drug and Alcohol Dependence
  • “non-completion of substance use treatment,” according to findings by researchers at Florida State University
  • “delayed recovery and reintegration processes” — the conclusion of an article in Drug and Alcohol Review
  • and, “increased involvement in risky behavior (e.g. needle sharing),” via a study in the International Journal on Drug Policy

The Impact of “Self-Stigma” for Those in Recovery

In addition to the impact of public stigma, those in treatment and recovery from an SUD often suffer from “self-stigma” and poor self-image, research has found. Self-stigma, much like public stigma, can hurt addiction treatment outcomes.

However, interventions such as Motivational Interviewing (MI) can reportedly help addicts overcome the self-stigma barrier. MI is an evidence-based therapy for treating addiction that assigns clients an active role in their treatment goals and outcomes, with the goal of helping them achieve greater self-direction and self-esteem.

How to Talk About Your Recovery

The dual reality of public stigma and self-stigma makes it challenging to talk about recovery from drug and alcohol addiction without exposing oneself to further discrimination, suspicion and/or shaming. But research has also revealed that positive stories of recovery bear direct relation to a reduction in stigma: The more the public encounters positive stories of recovery, the less the public is prone to stigmatizing the disease of addiction. On that note, below are some suggestions for how to talk about your recovery:

  • Remember your audience and avoid saying more than is absolutely necessary. If you’re not talking to other recovering alcoholics or drug addicts, chances are that your audience will not be able to fully understand the ins and outs of a diagnosed SUD and how hard a substance abuse problem can be. They may not be able to drum up the same non-judgmental compassion, solidarity or support that you receive within a 12-Step group or from a trained addiction therapist. Chances are your audience may not understand certain drug-related terms, lingo or behavior. For these reasons, keep your story short, simple and accessible, by avoiding addiction and recovery-related slang — including four-letter words — and avoid making admissions that could come back to haunt or hurt you.
  • Keep the main emphasis on your recovery. Emphasize the positive details around your recovery and avoid negative and/or potentially embarrassing details. Frame your story of recovery in terms of what you’ve positively gained from it and how a past struggle with drugs and alcohol has made you a better person, by teaching you critical lessons and shaping your character in positive ways. If ongoing struggles with relapse belong to your journey, you can acknowledge how hard achieving long-term sobriety can be without going into these details. These need to be processed privately and confidentially with the right trusted professionals.
  • Prepare what you’ll say in advance, and try to stick to the script. This preparation may involve writing out a short script that helps you weed out unnecessary details. It may also involve getting in touch with how you feel about sharing certain details or experiences. Flag content that stirs up feelings of anxiety or discomfort. When in doubt about whether to share it, consult a therapist or close friend who has your best interests in mind.
  • Frame your story with the goal of helping others with SUDs find help. Talking about your recovery can be the very thing that helps someone else get help. It’s not just a way to reduce stigma, but also a courageous act of service to others. By making service your goal, you’ll be better positioned to share your story in a way that is positive, helpful and one more step forward in your own journey to freedom from drugs and alcohol.
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