The stigma of addiction

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

Image of the blog post "The stigma of addiction" on Tikvah Lake Recovery.

There’s no doubt that over the past few decades the overall understanding of addiction has improved. This means that acceptance has also increased.

But there’s still a long way to go.

Stigma means “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. It still clearly exists around addiction.

Although there has been a marked increase in understanding there are still grave misunderstandings. This can mean years of suffering for an addict and those around them.

It can also of course prove fatal.

Close encounters with addiction 

Dr Gabor Maté is a physician who has treated addicts for decades and is widely seen as one of the world’s best experts on addiction today. His book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction has helped many people gain a much better comprehension of addicts and addiction.

Maté says everyone he’s ever seen with an addiction had suffered trauma. Their addiction was an attempt to deal with the unbearable pain of trauma.

Yet the addiction often becomes the biggest and most obvious problem in itself. To the point that many addicts suffer job losses, relationship break-ups, lose access to their children, end up homeless, in prison or they die from addiction.

Tragically many addicts suffer from all of these. But there are also addicts who seem to have it all materially, yet on the inside they are broken.

Maté explains how addictive tendencies arise in parts of our brains that govern some of our most life-sustaining needs. This includes the ability to feel and receive love.

These brain circuits develop mostly under the influence of the nurturing environment in early life. So if that environment is hostile and traumatic they don’t develop.

Addiction is a failure of these essential brain systems to mature in the way they should.

“Addiction is manifested in any behavior that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in,” says Dr Maté, “but suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up.

“In brief: craving, relief, pleasure, suffering, impaired control. Note that this definition is not restricted to drugs but could encompass almost any human behavior, from sex to eating to shopping to gambling to extreme sports to TV to compulsive internet use: the list is endless.”

Why addiction is still misunderstood

Yet even some medical experts still do not really understand addiction. It is said the people who best understand it are those who’ve been addicts themselves.

This is perhaps not surprising. It explains why even some doctors still do not fully understand it.

This is one reason why seeking help from others looking to stop their addiction or who have stopped an addiction proves so beneficial to so many. This is a strong principle behind the 12 Steps groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

There is the story in recovery circles of one man in hospital who’d just had half his stomach removed due to his years of addictive drinking. The doctor looked earnestly at him in his hospital bed and said: “You just need to not drink as much…”

The man replied, quite curtly: “Doctor, don’t you think I’ve realized that!”

Due to seeking treatment the man from this hospital bed is 20 years sober now. He is able to help many other people with alcohol addiction.

Portugal’s addiction success

It is in these past two decades that the thinking around addiction has vastly improved. For instance in Portugal in 2001 the country took a huge step when it became the first country in the world to decriminalize the consumption of all drugs.

Rather than spend hundreds of thousands on the “war on drugs” they put 90 percent of that spending into helping addicts stop and to – crucially – reconnect with society. They did this by such as assisting a few recovering drug addicts form a business together that meant they could earn money, but more importantly become a useful part of society again.

It has been an astounding success. In the 1990s about one percent of Portugal’s population of 10 million were heroin addicts.

One person a day was dying of an overdose. It now has one of the lowest rates of overdose deaths in the entire world.

We admitted we were powerless…

But despite improvement there is still stigma in varying degrees depending on the addiction. For example it’s harder for most people to be open about a sex addiction than a shopping addiction, and the reaction of many people would likely be more shocked at a sexaholic than a shopaholic.

For anyone addicted to drugs or alcohol there is still among some people the largely incorrect belief that they will be someone who’ll steal the shirt off your back to pay for their next bottle or fix.

Of course, there are addicts who do behave in dishonest and erratic ways. But an increased understanding that addiction is defined by medical experts as an illness is essential here.

Since the start of the 20th Century many medical experts were for instance stating that alcoholism was a disease. Then in 1956 the American Medical Association (AMA) officially declared that alcoholism is an illness

Then it can be seen that the behavior of addicts is not “bad” but that of someone who is unwell. As with many illnesses if left untreated it can result in increasingly worse illness, that can eventually lead to death.

It’s not just the stigma of people looking in from the outside either. An addict’s own perception of themselves may be extremely low.

It takes great courage for someone to admit they are powerless over something – whether that’s to work, gambling, love, food, a relationship or drugs and alcohol. With the stigma created by society and self – of shame, guilt and embarrassment – it means that reaching out for help can seem impossibly hard.

Yet millions around the world have successfully done this. An addict doesn’t have to wait until they are sick and tired of feeling sick and tired or until they plummet to rock bottom.

Not why the addiction, but why the pain

The more awareness there is about why people become addicted to something that is detrimental to them and the world around the more beneficial for the addict and society at large. 

We all need to know as Dr Maté says: “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.” 

With this increased understanding there would be more empathy. That in turn would improve the facilities and help available for people suffering from addiction.

We have years of experience at treating trauma and all addictions. We understand how difficult it can be to speak about an addiction and so we have great listening expertise.

At Tikvah Lake Recovery by our beautiful tranquil lake and under Florida’s year-round sunny climate we are in the ideal picturesque natural environment for recovery.

We offer individualized treatment plans that will work best for every guest. These include our proven highly successful 10-Day Executive Treatment and 30-90 Day Personalized Treatment programs.

Contact one of our team today to find out what we can do to help you or someone you care about.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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