There are many misperceptions in our society about people experiencing an alcohol or drug problem. They're called addicts, even failures. They are weak, lazy and have no self-control. They are homeless. They are worthless. They can’t be trusted. Would you be able to admit to yourself or to others that you are experiencing a problem, knowing this is how you would be judged?
Nobody grows-up imagining themselves this way. To realize your life is out of control due to substance abuse can be terrifying. To admit you are a person with a substance abuse disorder who needs help – and to actively seek out the treatment you need – requires incredible bravery.
Addiction is a disease. It does not discriminate by race, class, intelligence or anything else. It can affect anyone, from any background. It is a clever and insidious enemy that uses someone’s own mind against them. The perception that addiction is a matter of choice too often leads those in active addiction to imagine they can simply choose to stop. Active addiction tricks us into believing we are still in control and can solve this problem on our own.
Wouldn’t that be easier? We could then prove to ourselves we do not have a problem, and avoid the judgment of society and those we love and care for.
Overcoming addiction is difficult enough. Unfortunately, as a society we create many roadblocks for those in need of treatment.
The prevalence of drugs and alcohol is everywhere: at work, in restaurants, at social events, at home, and even in the movies and music we see and listen to every day. Prescription drugs, such as opioids, are readily prescribed by doctors and have contributed significantly to the heroin epidemic we are now experiencing across the country. Marijuana, often a gateway to other drugs, is extremely accessible and has led many taking this drug to more potent and dangerous substances. The prevalence of drugs and alcohol can easily make these substances part of our everyday life. In many instances, people with an active addiction disorder can’t imagine life without a substance because it’s everywhere they turn.
The perceived social acceptance of consuming alcohol, prescription drugs, and marijuana as “normal behavior” encourages the problem from the beginning. It’s very typical for a group of friends, family members or business acquaintances to base their entire relationship on engaging in alcohol or other substances. Pressure from peers is a very powerful force. It can also make identifying when someone has a problem very difficult, and can cause the individual with the active addiction great social distress and shame in admitting they may have a problem.
Stereotyping those with an addiction disorder contributes to the problem, as well. No one thinks it could happen to them or someone they love. One of the most initially striking things about entering a recovery center is that the face of addiction is nothing like what we have envisioned or been told. There are business owners, executives, professionals, and people of all ages and backgrounds. The characteristic they all share isn’t weakness or stupidity. It is determination. They are determined to be fearlessly honest with themselves, and they are determined to survive.
In the past year, more than 20.2 million adults (8.4%) had a substance use disorder according to SAMHSA’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). It’s clear this disease is impacting lives everywhere, even to those you never imagined could be suffering.
Thankfully public perceptions of addiction are beginning to catch-up to what the recovery community has known for some time. Having an addiction disorder is not a personal failure. Addiction is a medical condition which should be viewed and treated as one. Those in active addiction are not hopeless, rather they are brave enough to access treatment that can help them alter their destiny and dramatically change their lives for the better.
More needs be done to spread this message. There are still many who do not understand, and continue to contribute to the shaming and stereotyping of individuals suffering from this disease. Bringing this message out from under the rug helps raise awareness and acceptance of those suffering from the disease of addiction, so that more can come forward to seek life-saving treatment.