Stigma Creates Resistance: Learning the Truth About Alcoholics and Addicts
“My name is Amy, and I’m an alcoholic.”
When I first publicly admitted that I was an alcoholic, and after I published my memoir, friends and colleagues told me I was brave. I suppose many people think that I should have shame around my alcohol use disorder, but I do not. I’m conscious now and a person in long-term recovery. It takes courage to look within and be honest with ourselves. Many people are ashamed or unwilling to see their addiction, partly because of the stigma that exists in our society.
Before I knew I had a problem with alcohol, a relative had a series of DUIs. Back then, they called them DWIs, driving while intoxicated. He got five of them within the span of a few years. I was shocked. I harshly judged this person. I believed that anyone who got DUIs or arrested and continued to use substances was weak. I thought it was a moral failing. Why didn’t he stop? Why can’t he put it down? Why would he do that to himself and his family? I didn’t realize that he didn’t have a choice. His brain and addiction were in charge. He was powerless. I learned about this first hand in my own experience of the progressive disease of alcoholism.
An alcoholic or addict suffers from an illness. It has nothing to do with morals or a sense of right and wrong.
When I was actively drinking, I lied to my doctor about how much wine I consumed. I’d check the box for two drinks or less a day. I didn’t want my doctor to know the truth. I knew it was too much. I continued to rationalize my choices. I read articles about the benefits of drinking one glass of red wine a day for heart health. I thought that more must be even better. Everyone drinks more than they tell their doctor. I thought I had this under control. If I told them the truth, they might ask me to cut down, or worse, to stop. I couldn’t stop. I wouldn’t stop. I needed it.
I was high functioning, with a master’s degree, a great job in advertising, good relationships with friends and family, and relatively good health. If life was good, I couldn’t be an alcoholic, right? I was wrong. I’m grateful I learned about my illness before it destroyed my life, while I still had time to do something about it.
The stigma of alcoholism was partially responsible for keeping me away from recovery. Back then, I didn’t understand that addiction is a disease with stages. I also didn’t realize that recovery is a process, like it sounds, of recovering one’s life and health. It’s a positive experience for me and many others. I wouldn’t trade my sober life for anything today.
My sober colleagues are from all walks of life, regardless of their sex, gender, race, ethnicity, age, class, citizenship, marital status, sexual orientation, nationality, socioeconomic status, religion, physical ability, mental ability, and expression. We are writers, bankers, chefs, painters, accountants, surgeons, teachers, sculptors, waiters, store clerks, lawyers, and the list is endless. There are also the unfortunates who lost everything.
According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 15.1 million adults ages 18 and older had Alcohol Use Disorder, including 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women.*
If you catch yourself judging others for their drinking and drug use, consider this. Would you blame someone for having cancer, or having some other affliction?
There are some things in this life we have no control over. However, we do have choices of how we respond to the truth of our condition, once we are ready to hear it.
For additional reading on this subject, check out these articles:
Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 46, Issue 2, March-April 2011, https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/46/2/105/198339
The Stigma That Undermines Care, American Psychological Association, June 2019, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/06/cover-opioids-stigma