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The Stigma of Drug Addiction

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

One of the biggest barriers to patients getting help is the stigma of addiction. The stigma is so pervasive that many family members also resist seeking help for a loved one and for themselves out of fear of discrimination, shame from feeling like a failure or embarrassment from being judged by others.  This happens too often resulting in too many families destroyed.

Addiction affects many individuals and families.  But, it doesn’t have to be this way.  And it begins with sharing our stories, better public education and a broader sense of acceptance of addiction as a treatable disease (similar to diabetes, heart disease, etc.).

Read what these five parents had to say about the stigma of addiction:

this river

Susan: I have felt shame about having a child who is an addict. It’s one of the toughest emotions I’ve had to deal with. The ignorance of others; neighbors, friends, family, etc., is frustrating and can make you feel bad about yourself. I’ve found that reading the Intervene blog and going to Alanon meetings have been a big help.

Colleen: Family members and friends do not understand. They try, but society and media have them convinced that there is something amoral or weak about addicts. I get asked,”Why would he do this to you?” “Why do you allow him to live this way?” I am perceived as a bad parent by many, and I have been completely torn apart by some neighbors on a very public social network. My son is considered by many to just be a problem that society doesn’t need. I tell my friends and family, “It was his choice to try heroin the first time. That was his very bad choice. After that, he had no choice.” No one would choose death or jail if it wasn’t a disease. Anyone who can’t see that, well, they are the problem.

Ron: We spent years hiding from our son’s addiction. We denied it, we were ashamed of it, we tried protecting him from it, if we could have disappeared we would have. That strategy served no one well.

When we were able to overcome our shame we were finally able to take the first steps forward in helping ourselves and being in a place to help him when the time comes. We also began to realize that when people ask about our son it was because they cared about us and they cared about him. It isn’t fair to shut out these people that care for us because we are ashamed and embarrassed. I actually wrote a posting for The Partnership about overcoming your shame.

Manatee Mom: For me, sometimes the hardest part is the isolation. There are so few people with whom I can share my thoughts and feelings about this. Unless someone lives with addiction, it is hard to relate. Even the most caring person hardly knows what to say. Granted, most people who say the “wrong” thing are simply uninformed. But I barely have the strength to cope with my situation much less have to hear these (often) well-meaning, but usually off the mark comments. So rather than expose myself to more pain, I have learned to limit my sharing. I am trying harder to be grateful for those I do have with whom I can share. And I am looking for an avenue to influence a shift in society’s attitude towards addiction.

CarolAnn319: I noticed something about being the parent of an addict. It is a very lonely thing. If my child had any other disease, the people in my life would be surrounding me with comfort and support. Because my son has the disease of addiction I am left to deal with it on my own… I notice that even if I have a problem with my son that does NOT concern addiction, the others in my life still don’t seem to want to help because of, I assume the trouble he has caused in the past because of his addiction

Please share your family’s experience with stigma and how you try to overcome it.

Editor’s Note: For information on how to find the right help for your child with an alcohol or drug problem, please download our Treatment eBook.

Posted by  |  Filed under Addiction, Dealing with an Addicted Child, Denial, Shame, Stigma, Substance Abuse, Taking Care of Yourself

11 Comments on “The Stigma of Drug Addiction”

Susan Lea says:
May 18th, 2011 at 8:32 pm

One of the hardest things for me is sympathy. Well meaning people will treat me like I have been “wronged” by an ungrateful child. I hate being treated as a poor, pitiful victim. It’s embarassing and it makes me feel like I have to defend my child. But instead I try to change the subject or simply avoid people who don’t understand.

After my daughter was listed in the small town newspaper as being arrested for selling heroin, there was a letter to the editor saying she should be executed. The charges against her were later dropped but my daughter was frightened by this letter and felt she was in danger. She didn’t want to leave the house.

People really don’t understand addiction. I try to let people know that I’m fine and that my daughter is an amazing person. And I try to not worry what they think after that because I have no control over their beliefs.

Michele says:
May 19th, 2011 at 8:22 pm

It’s so hard to overcome the stigma and shame. Feeling like a failure as a parent and agonizing over the way you raised your child – what you might have done to cause him or her to begin using – is a terrible position to be in. It’s fantastic that the Partnership is trying to tackle this issue and give parents a place to turn to for support! What a valuable resource!

Patti Herndon says:
May 20th, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Stigma/the absence of knowledge and compassion about the realities of addiction can be so very frustrating and heartbreaking. As parents who continue to journey because it’s what we know we must do, and because it’s the right thing to do for ourselves and those we love who are challenged by a substance use disorder; there is peace and hope in the individual and collective power that allows us to increasingly chip away at stigma regarding addiction and other mental/emotional health-related challenges.

We are not alone. “One” is many when communing toward a common purpose. We up our own belief and awareness onto healthier actions/interactions that change the collective attitude as we pool our good energies. Little steps add up to leaps and bounds -getting us closer and closer to ending the negative impact of stigma thus increasing opportunity and access to quality treatment, encouragement and support.

Good link, below, for reading and sharing…Things we can do as individuals that serve to increase awareness and help end stigma on a collective scale. The Partnership at is sighted as a resource utilized in the article.

Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

Taken from the article:

DO learn the facts about mental illness and substance use disorders and share them with others, especially if you hear something that isn’t true.
DO use respectful and “people-first” language.

DO emphasize abilities, not limitations…

DON’T label people or define people by their diagnosis.

DO tell someone if they express a stigmatizing attitude.
(This one is especially delicate because even when we are well intended and our hearts are, absolutely, in the right place we can all unintentionally perpetuate stigma without even realizing it. One example I still see fairly often are verbalizations/language organized to express opinions/feelings that end up with the net effect of labeling those who are challenged by a substance use disorder as “liars” or as “criminals”. While it’s our own individual choice to hold this as opinion or, even, to believe it to be “fact”; it’s not helpful, in the bigger picture, to use language that ultimately ends up adding more uphill climb for the addiction-challenged person.

Over time I have developed a rule of thumb. I try, as best I can, to ask myself this question before I remark about my own loved one or about others challenged with addiction: “How might my son, or someone else I care about who is challenged by addiction or other mental health related condition “feel” about my words if they were always present as I was expressing them/writing them…in EVERY instance?” I try to be consistent, accepting that I’m not going to get it right 100% of the time…But, more that, over time; I can do an increasingly better job at avoiding language that perpetuates stigma. My dual diagnosed son helped me with this one ;0). We should be aiming for transformative language. We can do this more and more as we become more and more aware).

DO bring together people in your community that are leaders – local business, faith leaders, police officers, and media – and educate them on how mental health affects them and the community.

…These were just a few helpful insights mentioned in the article.

Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

Patti Herndon says:
May 20th, 2011 at 9:32 pm

In my own journey, where friends and family members are concerned in terms of support/encouragement/compassion withheld or not consistently offered -often associated with stigma:

I try to understand their perspective -where “they’re” coming from. I try to forgive and not judge what I perceive as a deficit in awareness/understanding/empathy regarding the realities that my son’s addiction/depression has brought to bear on my life, my family’s life. Then, I ask for what I need from them. I encourage their learning and becoming educated on the facts about addiction, which, basically, “allows” them choice as to how they might support me and my family n the cahllenges faced. If their words, behaviors, actions or inactions continue to be cause for added disappointment/stress in my life, or are otherwise detrimental to my energy/spirit or that of my family’s; I redefine the nature of the relationship so that it does not.

It took me a long time to figure out that I don’t have to stay stalled in my own disappointment/hurt about others views and behaviors. It’s “okay”, preferable, even, that I put healthy boundaries in place. It takes practice every day, but, ultimately, when I learned how to give myself permission to prioritize my own well being and that of my family’s over worrying about what others could or could not do…might or might not do… would or would not do…increasingly, there has been improvement in my quality of life, my sense of peace and hope. And, it’s probably no coincidence that this effort has impacted my son’s momentum in recovery, and his perspective about his journey for the better. One day at a time…

Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

Ned Wicker says:
May 23rd, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Boy I agree with what Patti says we need to organize as a community and fight the addiction that so cripples our children. It’s been said so many times it sounds trite but since “Just Say No” so little has been done.

Margie Fleitman says:
May 24th, 2011 at 4:16 pm

This is such a helpful forum for families that are challenged daily with a son or daughter that suffers from addiction. Sadly, it is too late for my son. We lost him June 11, 2010, almost a year ago. He suffered from bi-polar disease, and narcotic and presrciption drug addiction. It was ruled as an accidental drug overdose. Now we are left with sorrow and our lives are completely changed and we will never be the same. You never “get over” this and you “do not get better”, like some well-meaning friends and family think or expect us to do. I know the stigma that exists out there and it is a constant daily battle, even now through his passing. I have to educate others and stand up for my son, as well as countless others that struggle with similar stories. Yes, choosing to do heroin was his choice, but once he took that leap, everything else in his life spiraled because of the grip his addiction had on him and from that point on, he no longer had a choice and that was the day that I began to lose my son. But I feel that I can not stop educating others and I try to reach out to others that are going through the hell we went through. I wish you all the best and I hope that all of your children can overcome this devastating epidemic that is sweeping our country and the world.

Patti Herndon says:
May 26th, 2011 at 4:42 am

Margie…I’m thinking about you. My heart goes out to you and your family. I’m so very sorry for the loss of your son.

Your efforts to help others better understand, and better empathize with, the realities of addiction and mental health challenges results in exactly that. And, your kind, expressed wishes and hopes for fellow parents, for our sons and daughters battling through the hardships of addiction/dual diagnosis, helps me feel supported by a strong, caring heart-One with a simple and empowering message of belief and encouragement that we can overcome the challenges associated with addiction and improve our circumstances/our communities. Thank you for that. As we sustain that kind of spirit as we journey, everything we hope for feels more and more possible…

I will pray for your comfort, peace and your continued strength…


Cathy | Treatment Talk says:
May 30th, 2011 at 7:00 am

I know I felt the stigma when my daughter was dealing with her addiction. Close friends whose children have not been affected by this disease will never truly understand how it feels. Parents should come together and speak out as a group. There is power in numbers and with that power, hopefully some change can occur.

I do also strongly encourage people who are feeling alone with this disease to attend Al-Anon meetings, as they can be a strong source of support.

Susan Lea says:
June 1st, 2011 at 12:37 am

Cathy – I would love to see your idea happen in my community. The idea of parents speaking out as a group sounds wonderful. I think it’s just hard to take that first step. And I also worry about my daughter’s privacy.

I love Alanon and AA. And I respect their viewpoint on the value of anonymity. It seems like a fine line to walk; public attention to the subject of addiction as opposed to privacy for the individual.

A friend told me just today that a mutual friend was a member of NA. She said that he gave her permission to tell me this since he sees his life as “an open book.” But I think his attitude is unusual and most addicts want to keep their disease private.

I hope for a day when no one is ashamed of being an addict. And I also look forward to the day when I’m no longer embarrassed of the family members who are addicts. It’s still very hard for me.

brervin says:
July 28th, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Living with an addict is one of the hardest things I have ever done or will do. Not only was I embarrassed and ashamed but I continually felt as if I was the worst parent in the world. I also realized in the heat of the battle that it is hard to find help. Rehab, Police, other adults we thought could be a role model but none of these people really helped and the court system just didn’t seem to care. There was even a family in our neighborhood that seemed nice enough that we found out was growing pot inside the home and selling bags of pills to young people. I vowed to never let another parent feel as if they are alone in this fight. I would encourage each and everyone to find someone they can trust and talk with or form a community group for other parents with like issues.

Patti Herndon says:
March 16th, 2013 at 12:42 am

However hard it is on us, as parents, to parent a child with a substance use disorder or co-occurring disorder, it is exceedingly more difficult for our son/daughter to be the individual challenged by an addiction to alcohol and/or other drugs (substance use disorder).

Our shame and embarrassment about their chronic condition is something we MUST get appropriate support/help for so that we can irradiate its highly negative impact on our narratives about the journey, as well as its resulting limiting impact on our son/daughter’s sense of self efficacy/ability to recover/to reach for/move toward a healthier and healthier life.

If we are to act in a role of effective, recovery-purposed support/advocate on our son/daughter’s behalf; we will not have space/room/energy to allow our sense of shame and embarrassment, about their substance use disorder, to limit our own potential/our responsibility to encourage their recovery and their growing sense of self efficacy regarding their challenge.

We need to OWN that a substance use disorder/an addiction to drugs or alcohol is not something that a person acquires due to a deficit in their character, or as a result of absent moral compass…nor is it a condition that is about ‘willful bad behavior’.

Addiction/substance use disorder is ‘to infinity’ more complex than any of those common, outdated, stigma-generating perspectives attempt to explain.

Addiction can happen to anyone.

The more we welcome responsibility in educating ourselves, intensely, as parents/CSOs/advocates…and do so utilizing multiple, current, informational resources on addiction; the more we grow healthy, accurate perspectives in regard to our loved one’s challenge of substance use disorder….and the more hope and coping muscles we build as advocates for them/ourselves/our family…our communities.

This gained and expanding perspective allows us to ‘tune out’ the noise that commonly resonates around the subject of addiction -that off key melody that only serves stigma, negative narratives and stereotypes about individuals with an addiction challenge, as well as their family members. It’s time to sing out a new song about the journey.

We deserve increasing reserves of hope about the journey of addiction and the likelihood of recovery. It’s a process -recovery is. It takes a lot of time, in many cases. We gotta be appropriately prepared for whatever amount of time it’s going to take, in order to be equipped to see/recognize ‘any’ amount of increasing momentum in recovery, when it’s occurring – Healthy, realistic expectations/goals based on our ‘individual’ circumstances. That’s how we build on momentum.

The reality is, our practice of negative narratives/perspectives about our challenge will eat up our precious reserves of hope and sense of empowerment…that sense of empowerment that pushes us on, that assures us that we ‘can’ overcome the hurdles that will present in our individual circumstances. Don’t sign over ANY of the real estate in your thoughts/perspectives that would have shame and embarrassment building a hotel in your brain space – NOT a GOOD investment of your faculties.

Shame and embarrassment about our kid, challenged by an addiction or chronic mental health condition is mostly a result of the insidious presence of societal and cultural stigma. Stigma has a foothold as a result of our collective ‘speaking and thinking it’ into being. It (‘stigma’) can be runnin’ the show, and, much of the time, we don’t even recognize its nasty, off-key voice in our heads…. Negative, marginalizing, hope-depleting perceptions/perspectives/labels -which, as a byproduct, often times, serves the stereotyping of persons with a substances use disorder/other mental health-related condition, as well as it stereotyping us, the family members.

In addition, -after a point, especially- shame is a very self-involved, energy-robbing exercise in futility. We are the only ones who can decide to kick those kinds of stigma-centric thoughts out of our frame of reference regarding our son/daughter/ourselves … and all others directly impacted by an addiction. ‘All’ of us, certainly, individuals who deserve recovery, peace, health, and better lived moments.

Let it Go: Kick shames’ arse to the side of road and let it parish …because ‘shame’ is toxic. It’s, just, void, dark stuff that is never going to add light to the path/the road ahead.

Godspeed… and blessings and peace abundant!

Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

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