Addiction Stigma: Being Anonymous Isn’t Helping

The Addiction Stigma of Anonymous

I am a proponent of any addiction rehabilitation program, be it medical, spiritual, physical or magical, that helps addicts get a handle on their addiction. It is amazing to me that at this stage in my life that I am still susceptible to the pitfalls caused by the stigma of addiction. The prejudice is so very real. It takes such tremendous courage to out yourself as an addict. I’m not talking about the woman who has three D.U.I.’s being labeled as an addict, or your nephew who spent the night in jail after a bender, again. Their secret is pretty much out. I feel for those people, but I’m talking about the addicts who use in the shadows but are getting away with it, at least for now. After all, addicts who are good at hiding their addiction can continue to get high with less scrutiny, and for a lot longer. I’m talking about the people who have something to lose. People like Kristin Johnson, the actress from 3rd Rock From the Sun. And People who were featured in the documentary The Anonymous People. Recovering Addicts who could just fade into the background and never let their past addiction be discovered.

addiction stigma

It takes no courage for me to out other people. I would never name anyone unless I had permission to do so or it was a foregone conclusion. Someone asked me recently who the addict is that I’ve been referring to these last few posts. I have kept no secrets that my first husband was an alcoholic. There are other addicts in my life, but I was alarmed that anyone would think I was referring to my immediate family. I consider myself to be enlightened and yet I still fall prey to the pitfalls of addiction stigma. My first instinct is still to hide.

We have jobs to get, bills to pay. We can’t afford any bad publicity. And yet, who can? No one can. It’s scary as hell. I hate that the topic of addiction is salacious. It shouldn’t be, but it is. If it weren’t so scary or potentially reputation-staining, maybe more addicts would get help. Getting help should be seen as a positive instead of a point of gossip. That’s a big reason why I’m talking about addiction in the first place. I used to worry about my children living with the realization that their natural father was an alcoholic. As they get closer to their teenage years I worry about them not knowing. To know is to have power. To learn as much about it as possible is to learn alternate coping mechanisms. I hope knowledge will give them power over their genetics. A genetic predisposition doesn’t guarantee addiction in the next generation, but it remains a powerful factor.

Remember when it was considered weak to take anti-depressants? I knew a lot of people who steadfastly refused to even consider taking anti-depressants because they felt like they could tackle their darkness with sheer will. It’s true that exercise and certain habits can help lessen depression, but you can’t treat major depression with hope. It’s a chemical imbalance. No diet is going to make you less crazy. (I say “crazy” in an affectionate way).

Borrowing again from David Sheff’s book Clean, “AA’s program insistence on anonymity reinforces the shame by contributing to the stigma and isolation that addiction inflicts on those who suffer it. The implicit message is that there’s something to hide. Openness will help destigmatize addiction. A step that requires a form of atonement implies that addiction is a sin and injects morality into treatment.”

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