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Let’s Talk About the Stigma Surrounding Sobriety

When I headed out to my first meeting six years ago, my dad told me “Be careful.” When I arrived, it was to a plush church basement with a fireplace, couches, Persian rugs, expensive perfume, and mostly middle-aged folks who looked like they were there for a holiday party.

Which leads me to an interesting piece of data that was just released: according to a poll conducted by Caron Treatment Centers, two-thirds of adults believe addiction can be “cured,” but many of these same adults report being somewhat or very uncomfortable around someone two or more years into recovery.

This is especially true of trusted relationships: A son or daughter’s fiancé (50 percent of parents), a primary care physician (47 percent of total adults), or a child’s teacher (43 percent of parents).

The survey found that more than half of respondents think an addict would not be able to perform well at work – however,  says Dr. Joseph Garbely, Caron’s Medical Director, many people struggling with addiction are high-functioning – even high-performing – and masters at hiding their problem. The conversation around addiction, he continues, is that treatment and recovery needs to change. It needs to be recognized as a chronic disease that requires individualized, evidence-based treatment approaches.

But let’s back up a second.

It’s All About Perception

I’ve never once considered telling someone I’m sober could be a bad thing, and I usually don’t think twice about telling them why. In fact, to me, it’s more of a matter of wondering if they think it’s because I’m pregnant, or religious, of which so far, I have been neither.

That’s the thing: it’s all about our perception of their perception.

There are so many mixed messages about addiction, recovery and the effects of substances, which is why the goal of the survey, says Dr. Garbely,  was primarily to try and understand how these mixed messages were affecting respondents’ knowledge and opinions about substance use and, ultimately, perceptions about those in recovery.

“These responses provided critical insight into awareness, understanding and misperceptions about the culture of substance use and abuse in America,” he said. “Based on these responses, it’s very clear that many parents do not fully understand the impact of substances on the developing brain and that further education is required.”

The major takeaway for Dr. Garbely  is simple and sadly obvious: the stigma about addiction persists.

“Stigma is almost as insidious as the disease of addiction itself. Stigma causes families to feel ashamed and embarrassed and that shame causes many to not ask for help,” he says.

Stigma and Judgement

Ironically, many individuals in recovery and their families are living healthier and more psychologically stable lives than those who have not received support for mental health and addiction issues.

Frankly, I think we’re living a lot better lives than the people who don’t struggle with addiction; they don’t have the same tools, mentally healthy lifestyles and resources we have as people in recovery, therapy, etc.

Yet, stigma and it’s less intense cousin, judgement, are alive and well in our own lives?

Frankly, I think we’re living a lot better lives than the people who don’t struggle with addiction; they don’t have the same tools, mentally healthy lifestyles and resources we have as people in recovery, therapy, etc. Yet, stigma and it’s less intense cousin, judgement, are alive and well in our own lives?-Helaina Hovitz

When I was a few months sober, my own mother, who was undoubtedly content to see the emergency room visits and nights waiting up to hear me crashing around the bathroom at 22, commented on my slight weight gain and asked if I was ever going to go to “normal parties anymore.”

A man in the program named Mike said that at Mother’s Day Brunch last year, it struck when his dad proposed a toast to all the mothers.

“I was the only one at the table toasting with water, so he said “you can’t do a proper toast with a glass of water. Only a ‘recovering alcoholic’ (he did sarcastic air quotes) would toast with water.” He basically took a shot at me, and I felt very singled out and unwelcome.”

Jennifer, also an adult woman in recovery, says she recently went to a sukkah party the other evening and it turned out that one of the guests had gone gluten-free 25 years ago at the recommendation of a holistic physician—the same doctor who detoxed Jennifer from fentanyl.

“I adore this doctor and expressed my delight that we both knew him. When I mentioned that the doctor works in addiction medicine now, he drew his head back and his eyebrows together, as if to say, “How on earth could you possibly know him, then?” These kinds of things happen all the time. Even in my social work classes, I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m recovering from addiction and people don’t seem able to reconcile their view of me with their ideas about addiction.”

True, she says, we’ve come a long way, and more people realize it’s a disease, but there are still so many people who think that calling it a “disease” is a copout, an excuse for a character flaw, laziness, lack of willpower.

“The hard thing is, I worry about what people will think of me because I thought this very thing myself. It’s a big part of what took me so long to get sober,” she says.

“I don’t want others to think of me the way I used to think of alcoholics. It feels isolating and sometimes stifling to keep my alcoholism and recovery under wraps, like I’m hiding something. That doesn’t feel good. I think if I were loud and proud about it, the stigma would be lessened for those around me. But in another way, if they get to know me first, all the rest of me, and then find out I’m an alcoholic in recovery, it will be more like, ‘oh, she’s normal, and look what she has that I never guessed. Maybe it’s not just bums on the street who are alcoholics.’”

The Larger Story

Simon, who is currently putting over two years together after a relapse, says that there have been multiple times that friends or acquaintances would be almost confused by his not wanting to drink.

“So you don’t drink, ever? Why not? So you will never drink again?” Which made him ask: “Do I want to be known as the sober guy?” So while he remains in recovery, he keeps his status private – for now.

The way Dr. Garbley sees it, the larger story we need to focus on is the fact that addiction is a chronic disease, akin to cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.

He continues, “These diseases all require consistent, life-long management and can be successfully managed with the right support and tools.”


Images Courtesy of iStock

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