Are You Stigmatising Yourself in Addiction?
So many elements of addiction are highly stigmatised in society, from the disorder itself, to treatment, to the “type of people” suffering. Even family members of those struggling experience the ripple effects of the stigma of addiction, afraid to reach out for help due to fear of judgment.
In this article, we explore the stigma of addiction brought on by society. We also take a look at the complex ways in which those in recovery may be stigmatising themselves.
The stigma of addiction from the public
Before jumping into what self-stigmatisation can look like, it’s important to look at how the public views addiction. Although so much research has defined addiction as a chronic illness, the public perception (for some, not all) is still that addiction is a moral failure or the result of character deficits.
Much of the stigma associated with addiction can be rooted in people still believing addiction is a choice. Because of this, the public perception is that those who struggle with addiction made a choice to be addicted, and can make the choice to stop.
If you’re in recovery, you know that ending substance use is just one part of the recovery process. There are layers of healing that need to be done. Additionally, so many people experiment with alcohol or drugs, and some develop addictions while others don't. Although trying a substance was a choice, no one ever chooses to develop a full-blown addiction.
There’s also a stigma around the type of people who struggle with addiction. It is still difficult for the public to truly grasp that addiction can happen to anyone, regardless of who they are or where they are from.
How language contributes to the stigma of addiction
The language commonly used when referring to those with addiction helps contribute to the stigma.
When referring to someone with an addiction, people off-handedly use words like “addict” or “alcoholic.” Even if you’re in recovery yourself, you may have found yourself using these words with no ill intent.
However, these labeling terms end up defining that person based on the illness they have. Using phrases like these reduces someone down to their affliction It strips away from them everything else that makes them who they are.
The truth is, addiction doesn’t define who someone is. Therefore, using person-first language is more appropriate and less stigmatising. An example would be to say “someone with an addiction,” rather than an “addict.”
The way that sobriety is referred to also innately contributes to the stigma of addiction. Many times, people interchange phrases like “sober” and “abstinent” with the word “clean.” This language implies that someone who is engaging in use is “dirty.” These ideologies contribute to the stigma placed on those with addiction.
Self-stigmatisation by those in recovery
When someone struggles with addiction or is in recovery, they may not realise they’ve internalised the stigmas listed above. The public perception of addiction and those that struggle with it are the foundation of self-stigmatisation.
The public stigma of addiction can cause you to feel insecure and struggle with low self-esteem. You may feel shame, and you may worry about being judged. However, you may also be judging yourself based on these public ideas you’ve internalised.
If you’re in recovery, you may feel shame about struggling with addiction in the past. You may even feel shame about being in recovery.
Identifying as “an addict” in the world
When you end substance use and actively work through the healing process, you describe yourself as being “in recovery.”
Perhaps this is all well and good within the recovery world. By sharing that you’re in recovery and what your journey has been like, you let others struggling with addiction know what’s possible for them. You inspire others who may also struggle.
But, what happens when you carry that label outside of the recovery world?
- Do you allow the stigma of addiction to influence how you feel about yourself?
- Do others respond similarly, or do you feel them judging you?
- When sharing that you’re in recovery, do you feel safe?
Or, do you hide this part of yourself from the outside world?
Additionally, it’s interesting to consider whether you’re inadvertently contributing to the stigma of addiction and recovery. You may be doing so by calling yourself an “addict” or “alcoholic,” even long after you’ve ended use.
When you were in active addiction, that became your label, but has being someone in recovery now become your label? Is being someone in recovery the core of your identity? Who else are you?
These are all questions to consider when examining how you may be stigmatising yourself without even realising it. When you do so, you box yourself into a preconceived idea of who you think you are. You may limit yourself to what you believe you’re capable of becoming.
Can talking about your addiction help reduce stigma?
On the flip side, does talking about your experience with others outside of the recovery world help reduce stigma of addiction? So many people have an idea of what addiction is without ever having seen it or being affected by it firsthand.
Sharing that you struggled with addiction and that you’re in recovery has the potential to break up the preconceived ideas that people have had about addiction. It can show others that addiction can truly happen to anyone, and that it is not born of character defects or moral deficiencies.
Is the twelve-step fostering salvation or stigma?
The twelve-step program is widely touted as the most successful pathway to recovery and is by far the largest as far as support groups are concerned. The foundation of the twelve-step has been recreated and utilised in more and more treatment centres, even though formal AA/NA and other peer-support groups are scientifically unregulated. AA as an organisation explicitly states that they don’t sponsor or engage in research.
Although twelve-step programmes have been incorporated and adapted as a standard in treatment for addiction, they may also bear a slew of potentially harmful effects. These effects can contribute to the stigma of addiction as well as self-stigmatisation.
For one, the language in Alcoholics Anonymous encourages members to refer to themselves as “alcoholics.” As previously mentioned, this can reduce someone down to a label, causing them to identify themselves as an “alcoholic” and aligning themselves with whatever that term may mean to them.
These notions and more that have become commonplace can inherently cause someone in recovery to stigmatise themselves and place limits on who they are and who they can be.
Is life beyond addiction & recovery possible?
Life beyond addiction is possible. You can learn who you truly are at your core, and grow into the person you dream of becoming. You don’t need to be confined or weighed down by society’s ideas, or your own ideas, about what it means to have struggled with addiction. That addiction doesn’t define you, your potential, or the possibilities that await you.
Remission from addiction is possible, just as it is for many other chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, and even heart failure. Many individuals who experienced these illnesses go on to become so much more than just the disease they’ve suffered from. Looking at cases like this can help give hope to others, showing them how to restructure their lives and truly live them to the fullest.
A final word
Whether you struggled with addiction for a few years or a few decades, it is a part of your story. It is a part of who you are. Your battle with addiction and everything you’ve gone through has shaped your story and created the person you are today.
Struggling with addiction and then being able to experience recovery is something that you should be wildly proud of. However, you can know that and also know that this one aspect of your being does not define all that you are and all that you can be. You are someone in recovery, and also whoever else you decide to be.
Recoverlution are passionate about reducing the stigma associated with addiction, we welcome all recovery communities, as we know there is no single right way to recover. We are also partnered with SMART Recovery and Chasing the Stigma, as well as Anonymind so that we can offer more than just one way of overcoming addiction.
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Addiction Recovery
- Stigma and Self-Stigma in Addiction - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5527047/
- Challenging Drug and Alcohol Stigma - https://www.nhsinform.scot/campaigns/challenging-drug-and-alcohol-stigma
- Words Matter: The Language of Addiction - https://drugfree.org/article/shouldnt-use-word-addict/
- Reevaluating the 12-Step Model Legacy - https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/JF18p20.shtml
- The Surprising Failures of 12 Steps - https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/the-surprising-failures-of-12-steps/284616/
- Twelve-Steps Step 6 - https://www.aa.org/sites/default/files/2021-11/en_step6.pdf