Opioid stigma impacts recovery so profoundly that many people with substance use disorder perish in secret rather than face the shame of trying to get help, and failing. Stigma also prevents family members from accepting the reality of the disease and appropriately supporting their loved ones. If you don’t understand and you hate what you’re seeing, it’s hard to help.
Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
When it comes to addiction, stigma has made opioid addiction treatment even more challenging, has prevented addicts from asking for help, from getting help, and from securing jobs when they do recover. And that is just the beginning of how deep the secondary damage from opioid stigma goes.
When you are a recovering opioid substance user, your paper trail follows you, even when you have been restored as a productive member of society. But the paper trail is only part of the stigma that burdens people in opioid addiction recovery.
How people view opioid addiction impacts the help they receive
People tend not to see you as a struggling, hurting person in need of help, but rather as an outcast who needs to be isolated and punished. We may be experiencing a similar kind of discrimination with the Carona virus now. People are suspicious and avoid each other for fear of contagion. Those infected are literally isolated. On the other hand, Carona virus victims are also cheered when they recover. You see heroic support and empathy for them from healthcare workers during the illness. This kind of support for those with a deadly disease has not occurred with opioid addiction recovery.
Why is there such opioid stigma and punishment instead of long term care
One easy answer is the phenomenon of craving, which is the persistent and most damaging part of opioid addiction. The craving for a drug (or alcohol) causes individuals to do unspeakable acts that they would not normally do, and this has caused society to see addicts as criminals to be feared and punished. Furthermore, the dark side of addiction has been exploited in the media for decades almost as a kind of addiction porn.
How does media coverage impact us, the recovering opioid addicts
Many of us have grown to be guarded in our everyday lives, and we choose to hide who we really are. As a recovering addict, I have absolutely witnessed this. It is safer to hide behind my truth than face unfair judgement from people who don’t understand recovery. For this reason, those recovering from opioid and other addictions have anonymous programs and support networks where we can be entirely open. The world is not an accepting place.
Stigma impacts recovery in the workplace
One addict told me that her goal was to be a teacher. Because she was arrested for a drug-related misdemeanor during active addiction, she has had to alter the trajectory of her career aspiration. She is currently more than 5 years sober. Robert Downey Jr. is just one example of shunning by Hollywood. After his drug arrest, he lost many job opportunities, and it wasn’t until Mel Gibson personally vouched for his liability insurance that Downey could star in 2003’s The Singing Detective. He has been sober now for 20 years.
Another recovering addict with just under a year of sobriety, shared that his father is refusing to speak to him because he believes “addiction is a weakness.” He has been chastised for getting help with his disease and ostracized from his family.
Feelings of despair, shame, guilt, from loss of opportunity brutalize addicts’ self-esteem.
The fear of being judged can deter a person from getting help and later from succeeding in recovery. Judgement diminishes hope. The curse lies within the notion of once an addict, always an addict. While public safety requires drug testing for many kinds of job, opioid stigma may require some of us to take drug tests for positions for which a non addict would be exempt., Some with arrest records are haunted by their pasts and can never escape it on paper.
Substance Use Disorder (addiction) is defined a chronic, progressive, relapsing brain disease. Addiction to anything has both physical and emotional components. For successful long-term recovery, both the physical and psychological components of the disease require treatment. You can’t just stop and be all right. But long-term, multi-pronged treatment programs are just not available.
You need to see the stories of success
You are exposed to the horror stories, but what happens on the other side? It takes more than a year for our brains to heal from opioid and other substance use: the results are not instant. Change occurs slowly over months and years. Those in opioid recovery are in many different stages of recovery. You don’t hear much about that. We are all works in progress — even those with decades of recovery.
How can you help end opioid stigma
People who struggle with substance use disorder should be afforded the same respect and support as a person who battles any issue. You can help in the following way
- Learn the facts about how long it takes to recover
- What is evidence based treatmed
- Is medically assisted treatment helpful or necessary
- Know that language matters
- Change the way you talk about drugs and addicts Labels like “pillhead” or “junkie” dehumanize people struggling with addiction.
- Focus on the person as a whole, not a behavior. Instead of “addict,” refer to a “person addicted to drugs” or a “person in recovery.”
Each person in recovery has an incredible story of resilience and strength. We are told that people in recovery are true miracles, and it’s true. Aside from fighting stigma, they are battling for their lives on a daily basis — sometimes a moment at a time. We are commonly very smart people who are successful and feel deeply. I guarantee that our stories of recovery will supersede the consequences of our disease.