Healing the Stigma of Recovery
What figment of the human imagination has the power to:
Isolate individuals and families;
- Encourage people to deny a serious problem and ignore its symptoms;
Keep desperately ill people from seeking help and
Persuade society to choose far more expensive alternatives – alternatives like imprisonment?
It’s the stigma that we as a society attach to alcohol and drug addiction. What is stigma? Erving Goffman, traditionally the best-respected authority on the subject of stigma, defined stigma as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting” and described the stigmatized individual as “a discredited person facing an unaccepting world” (Goffman, 1963). Stigma is sometimes described as an imaginary “stain” that we see on someone.
For the person with an addiction who becomes the object of stigma, its impact is very real and very tangible. The stigma itself can sometimes be as bad as the addiction itself. Four of its strongest effects are isolation, shame, denial and hopelessness.
As it stands in our society now, we see alcoholics and addicts all the time… in ERs, courts, spread all over the highway, killing people, saying rude things. Once the addicted person gets into recovery, he becomes invisible.
We in recovery have been part of the problem. By hiding our recovery, we have sustained the most harmful myth about addiction: that it is hopeless. And without the examples of recovering people, it’s easy for the public to continue thinking that victims of addiction are moral degenerates – and that those who recover are the morally enlightened exceptions.
We are the lucky ones – the ones who got well. And it is our responsibility to change the terms of the debate, for the sake of those who still suffer.