It’s not unusual to see how common and blatant addiction stigma is in today’s world. Every day we are flooded with images, videos, and rhetoric that dehumanize the disease of addiction and the countless human beings who have a substance use disorder. It’s so easy for us to remove our emotions from the equation when we see only the worst of the problem – people passed out, not taking care of their children, the physical detriments of the disease, the negative consequences. It’s easy for us to demonize them and not understand how they could possibly engage in something like putting a child in danger. For people who aren’t educated on substance use disorders, it’s even harder to understand and break stigma. But we need to be vigilant in showing compassion towards those who are still suffering, as well as anyone who is, or trying to be, sober.
Educate yourself and others.
The best way to stay up-to-date and informed is to read, listen, and educate yourself about addiction. If you are a person in recovery, it’s our job to promote education, understanding, and respectful views of people with substance use disorders, whether they are actively using or not. It’s important to know how to respond in situations where people may be criticizing or demonizing substance users. These types of conversations can be teaching opportunities. It would be a great opportunity to share your own story of recovery, how addiction is a disease, and how you find compassion for those who are still suffering.
We’re human beings and judging others is a part of our make-up. For many, imposing judgement makes them feel better about themselves or their situation, and in the case of addiction, it becomes easier for us to demonize than to sympathize. If we hold people at arm’s length and think of only the drugs they use and the ugly things they do, we’ll never be able to treat addiction like the medical condition it is and find compassion for those humans who are going through it. That’s not to say you should accept when substance users lie, cheat, steal, or put their children in danger, but there are reasons for these negative behavioral patterns. Try putting yourself in that person’s shoes, it could have happened to any one of us and I could easily be where any of those people are. Why did I use cocaine and alcohol and not put a needle in my arm? I’m not sure, but it shouldn’t matter. It’s important to know that you are no better and no less than anyone in this world. Let’s judge less and love more.
Understand compassionate language.
We must understand what kind of message we are putting out to the world with our language and when to object to others’ language. Language matters and it’s imperative to breaking the stigma of addiction. We don’t tolerate the words druggie, junkie, and alchy anymore. There are many people in recovery who don’t use labels like alcoholic and addict. Even the word “clean” can have a derogatory meaning when you think of the alternative being “dirty.” Language plays into stereotypes and stereotypes define stigma. The truth is that people with substance use disorders can be anyone, rich, poor, old, young, black, white. The point is we are all human beings who deserve respect and care, whether we are still using drugs and alcohol or not. How will someone be encouraged to ask for and receive help if they know they are being looked down upon?
Know how to offer help.
Now that you’re educating yourself and others on the seriousness and compassion of addiction, you should be knowledgeable on how to offer help to those who are still sick and suffering. There are countless resources out there from 12 step meetings, to addiction treatment centers, to other modalities of recovery, therapists, and support groups. There are books, blogs, websites, podcasts, email chains, and even people who are willing to chat face-to-face. It’s up to you to recommend these resources when you can and there is no reason not to since so many are available. Remember, people who misuse drugs and alcohol are sick and they need help, not your criticism, hate, or judgement. Knowing how to offer help is the first step is showing compassion.
Next time you come in contact with a friend, partner, relative, or anyone else who might be struggling with addiction, I encourage you to think with love and compassion first. Provide help, resources, a listening ear, healthy boundaries, and an open mind. After all, we are all human beings just trying to make the best of our lives while we’re here.