I am a white-passing, middle-aged, professional, able-bodied heterosexual cisgender male. Therefore, I have never suffered at the hands of racism or sexism, implied or declared. I have not been denied a job interview or pulled over by the police haphazardly because of my skin colour, name or gender. I am in a place of privilege, even though the term and the state of that term makes me feel uneasy, a sort of survivor’s guilt I suppose. But it’s the reality.
The same can be said of the stigma of alcoholism and addiction. I am an alcoholic, and drugs do not play a role in my story. Alcoholism is seen as a “respectable” illness, if you will, and I have not suffered at the hands of my alcoholism, implied or declared. Everyone who I have opened up to about my alcoholism has been nothing short of supportive, and often will share a story of a family member or friend who suffers or suffered from it. I will have people come to me for advice. It’s an acceptable disease to have.
So I guess you can say I have it easy, in many ways. So it’s not surprising to say that I have a hard time understanding, but completely believing in, the stigma that let’s say, an aboriginal, trans, disabled addict would run into daily. They would be writing a completely different post here. And I would love to read it. I don’t have the experience that they would have.
We hear about the stigma that addiction has in our culture. A few years ago I went to the Unite to Face Addiction rally in Washington. It was eye opening in that the prominent stigma that was spoken about was that of heroin, and to a smaller extent, any other opioid-based drugs. Very little had to do with alcohol. And that’s because alcoholism is mainstreamed, in many ways. It’s a destructive, insidious and powerful force, and kills but it’s still mainstream. Between 88,000 and 2.5 millions Americans have died from alcoholism and alcoholism-related deaths between 2006-2010.
Addiction is a different beast in terms of perception. Drug addicts are seen as degenerates, thugs, whores, scum and other horrid terms. Depersonalization is the name of the game to distance people from the plight of those addicted to drugs. Things are changing a bit these days, as middle America (and middle Canada) are being ravaged as housewives, grandparents, coaches, baristas and other “respectable” folks are dying with needles in their arms, or bottles of pills in their hands. Prescription pills, from the local pharmacy where you run into Judy from the PTA club every Wednesday, prescribed by your friendly Wilford Brimley-like doctor, are killing people. Opium is opium. But we still hold the stigma of that punk in the alley way, shooting up behind a dumpster. But what’s worse than these sweeping generalizations is that even we in the recovery community perpetuate these myths.
The stigma that alcoholics and addicts push onto one another is one that angers and saddens me. I have seen this in the rooms and online. I have been guilty of it myself, something that I am not proud of. We see the man or woman who is always relapsing, and we tend to tire of them. They are relegated to third class, as we focus all our attention on the new shiny newcomer. We start to look at the relapser as a hopeless case. We stop caring about them as much. And that is more damaging than any stigma that a non-alcoholic or non-addict can dish out. I recall someone in a meeting being horrified when they witnessed someone coming into the room drunk. If an active alcoholic can’t be welcomed to a 12-step meeting while they are at their worst, then where would they ever be welcome? It’s like making fun of an overweight person at the gym, or a homeless person in line at the job clinic. Where would you have these folks be that would make you comfortable?
We tend to compare where we are to where others are. Some of us may be a stay-at-home mothers who drank too much Chenin Blanc after the children went to bed, but we are not much different than the man chugging mouthwash by the ravine. The only difference is the circumstances. Some of us slide down the scale a little (or a lot) further, but essentially we are driven by the same things – fears, resentments, low self-worth, etc. I think every alcoholic and addict out there has at some point in their drinking / using days has compared themselves to someone else and said “well, at least I am not bad as they are”. In many instances, this justified and fortified our drinking / using. We compare ourselves to those who we feel are really out of sorts. I am sure that many times I was the one held up as the lower end of the spectrum. We never know.
I used to be frightened when I went to meetings in certain areas of town. I would see a lot of homeless folks, or ex-cons or people who didn’t “look” like me. I would try to sit away from them. The guys with wet brain, or ones who hadn’t bathed in a while, or who were off their medications and acting odd. What could I possibly have in common with them? I would also go to meetings where people arrived in BMW’s and Porches and who wore outfits that cost more than my own car. I felt that I never fit in there either. What I was doing was inflicting my own form of self-righteousness on all these people. I was stigmatizing them based on a cursory and ill-informed view of myself and the world. I was placing judgment on them. Aren’t these the very same things that all those people in Washington were trying to call attention to? So how much better was I, some dude in recovery no less, than the so-called “ignorant normies” out there? Oh, and aren’t I judging them by using those terms in the quotation marks too?
The journey of breaking stigma has to come from within the community itself first. It starts with us. It starts with not judging people on their mode of recovery, whether they are in 12 step or not. It starts with us not comparing how “bad” others went down compared to our high bottoms. It starts with how we treat one another no matter how many times someone has relapsed or struggles. It starts with how we hold each other up rather than tear one another down because of cosmetic differences. It starts with us valuing each other as recovery advocates rather than liabilities based on different agendas or perceptions.
I need to remember this. I can fall into a level of spiritual or recovery superiority. I can forget what it’s like to be caught in the throes of active alcoholism / addiction. I can find myself being dismissive of someone who genuinely needs help. I can get wrapped up in me. And sitting smugly on my throne of supremacy, it’s easy to toss jabs and aggressive comments to those who aren’t doing recovery my way. And it’s that kind of thinking that tends to tear apart the recovery community.
The antidote to all of this is acceptance and love. It sounds hokey but it really is the answer. I gave up trying to uphold my ideas of what recovery is, and just celebrate those who are doing it, and who are happy, joyous and free. I care not for how someone comes to a place of healing where alcohol and/or drugs are no longer needed. What I care about is that they made it. One less coffin to lower into the ground. One less powder keg to destroy a family. How they got there is none of my business. The important this is that they made it.
The recovery community is a fantastic and supportive place. I find refuge in it, even with 6+ years of sobriety. I lean on the community differently than I did as a newcomer, and as the years pass I find those people to be more and more important to me. The last thing we need in this community is division based on ego and pride. If stigma is to really be addressed, we need to take a look in the collective mirror and see where we can make changes, where we can be more kind and loving to not only the alcoholic / addict who still suffers, but to those who have succeeded an continue down the path of wellness, and not undermine one another.
It begins with us.