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Stigma and Addiction Recovery

Barriers to Addiction Recovery

Stigma is a set of negative beliefs and values attached to a group of people. People stigmatize other people based on their race, sexual orientation, religion, background, health conditions, and mental health. People dealing with substance use disorder are all too often perceived and labeled as junkies, fiends, crackheads, criminals, lowlifes, scumbags, and the list goes on. Essentially, the view of many is that what is commonly referred to as addiction and alcoholism are a choice people make, and that those who make that choice are a blight on society.

Feeding the Disease

The narrow-minded view that addiction and alcoholism are choices, allows for people to ignore the pain and deaths of individuals suffering from this disease. Worse, these labels and the ideology that addiction is a choice are internalized. Believing that addiction is a moral failure, allows the disease of addiction and alcoholism to further isolate those of us afflicted with it.

One of the greatest impediments to those dealing with substance use disorders is the Stigma attached to addiction. Individuals with substance use disorder often feel alienated from and removed from the greater body of society. That stigma can be especially detrimental to those of us in recovery, as we try to reenter society.

Those of us struggling with substance use disorder feel as though we must hide our affliction and all the behaviors related to it. Our pasts become liabilities that we feel as though we must hide to be accepted by society. The problem that most addicts and alcoholics find feel that to hide our past is very similar to the way we used to hide our drug and alcohol use. So, by simply refusing to acknowledge our pasts those afflicted with substance use disorder are often feeding a part of our disease.

Personal Experience with Stigma

After being released from prison, I felt dual stigma. Not only am I an addict, but I committed crimes to feed my addiction. Having a criminal past was difficult to bear, there were many instances in college and at work where I feared being discovered. Even amongst my peers in the NJ-STEP and Mountain View Programs, I often hid my substance use disorder. I was afraid of being judged for my disease. I was certain that if it were revealed my issues with substances I would be viewed as an outsider, even among others who were treated as outsiders. This fear of being stigmatized is why 12-step fellowships are anonymous, because of the difficulties that surround individuals with substance use disorders.

12 years ago, when I was homeless, half-starved, desperate, and in the grips of this disease. I could see the look of disgust in people’s eyes. The fear of what I might do if they were to reach out to me and offer me help. People believed that I was nothing more than a junkie and that I would rob them or steal their possessions to get high. I lived down to their expectations of me, I thought there was no hope.

The more often we are pushed away, and conclusions are drawn about us, the easier it is for us to slip deeper into this disease. To lose sight of our own worth and value. I was fortunate and have been fortunate in this process. Over time, and through recovery I have found the ability to understand that the only way to break the stigma surrounding my disease, is to tell people about my own recovery.

A Lack of Understanding

Often, people see someone that is currently in recovery, thriving in our lives, and a productive member of society. They make comparisons with those who aren’t. It’s easy for someone, who knows two people with substance use disorder and make a comparison. For example: Amy knows Jack, who has been in recovery and abstinent for 12 years from all substances. Jack has a great profession, is supportive of his family, and is one of the nicest people that Amy knows. Amy also knows Dan, Dan is actively smoking crack-cocaine and regularly robs people to support his habit. She doesn’t understand why Jack and Dan are different, even though she knows they used to get high together. Amy sees it as a choice, that Jack is in Recovery. Amy also believes that Dan not being in Recovery is his choice.

Another problem then may occur if in two years Dan is active in recovery and Jack has relapsed. Amy will blame Jack for his drug-use and distrust Dan’s recovery. A choice is required to stay active in recovery. We must make that choice every second of every single day. Being active in recovery is a conscious decision, that requires constant work and vigilance. When those of us in recovery stops working on ourselves, our disease can easily resurface. Relapse is not a requirement for those with substance use disorder. But relapse is a constant threat for individuals in recovery.


What many fail to understand is every single addict/alcoholic, has the potential to do good in this world. No matter where we are in this process, we can make a positive change in this world, by working a program of recovery. It is difficult not to blame us for this disease, but we did not choose to have this disease. Every day is a struggle for those of us dealing with substance use disorder. Impugning us for our disease only feeds that disease, isolating us, and making the struggle more difficult.

Through self-acceptance those of us in recovery begin seeing our strengths and value in society. It’s completely understandable to be afraid of stigma. Overcoming that stigma requires self-acceptance. Still, it is difficult for us, even those of us thriving in recovery, to break our anonymity. Even though we know substance use disorder is a disease, we understand that most people do not see it as such.

Individuals in recovery often find ourselves only able to relate to and talk to other people in recovery. Because, we fear the judgement of others. As a society it is necessary to begin to see those of us dealing with this disease as people in need of help. Still, it is easy to judge us by our past. Or to judge someone for where they’re at. It is hard to see someone and imagine they have the potential to make a positive change in this world.

However, many find that of us come to accept ourselves. We begin to quit worrying about the judgement they may face from others. It is one of the gifts we find in recovery.

A Solution

It may seem like a necessity for us to begin letting people in our lives and communities know that we struggle with substance use disorder and that we are in recovery. The harder the journey we’ve had the more of an impact it may have. By sharing our stories, it helps people know that recovery from substance use disorder is possible. Still, it is everyone in recovery’s choice and decision. While recovery lends us courage to stand up for ourselves and others, recovery is still a process. Not all of us are going to be in place in our recovery, where breaking our anonymity will not cause us harm. The greater problem though is some of us have lived in fear of stigma for so long we may not even be able to overcome that fear enough to ask for the help we need.

The stigma surrounding addicts and alcoholics cannot be resolved through self-acceptance alone. Certainly, visibility helps the addict and alcoholic, but it is not the entire solution. The solution lies in the hands of others, to begin fighting against stigma, and start expressing the need for acceptance, so addicts and alcoholics begin finding it easier to enter into recovery.

Note: I use terms such as alcoholic and addict and other related terms in this article, because they are the common terms used to describe substance use disorder. I do this even though all three terms are technically synonymous.

Related Links

Working through workplace stigma: Coming back after an addiction

The Isolating Stigmatism of Addiction

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