Webster’s Dictionary defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Just take the word “addict,” a common label for people who use substances. The mark of disgrace here is the label.
Many thoughts associated with the term “addict” are negative. Historically, the term suggested someone who was weak, couldn’t handle themselves, was morally bankrupt or just a bad person altogether. Today, when doing a Google search for “addicts are…,” the search engine auto populates this search term with “Addicts are … weak, selfish, manipulative, liars, narcissistic, losers …” and the list goes on. These words place emphasis on morals and personality judgments.
Neurobiology of addiction
Though persons with chemical dependence often seem selfish or weak or manipulative, there seems to be an underlying process going on. That process is often thought of as the neurobiology of addiction – where thought, reason and morality are hijacked to support the survival function of the brain; where substances are used as rewards to sustaining life. Addiction is when the neurobiology of substance use is considered to dominate life choices.
Many times we label people based on the choices – good vs. bad – we see them make. After all, labeling someone’s behavior has given us good indication about how to protect ourselves; so labeling is not always bad. But it’s important to consider when the label becomes harmful and we start to qualify someone’s inherent worth because of it.
When I think about worth I start to think about worthiness; stigma and labeling are attached to this through shame. Shame touches that part of us that feels worthy or not. The transitive verb form of shame makes this connection and means: “to cause (someone) to feel ashamed.”
The feeling of shame denotes pain regarding shortcomings. Shame created by labeling someone introduces the blame factor. In addiction, this can keep people from seeking treatment and thinking they are not worthy of getting better or are incapable of doing so. Most importantly shame and stigma keep us from knowing the person and their experience.
Even in addiction? Especially in addiction.
You may be wondering about all the harm addiction has caused you and your family. Does this mean the person using substances isn’t responsible? Not exactly.
The nature of addiction does not absolve the individual from personal responsibilities in recovery. Active addiction and recovery look very different. In the Narcotics Anonymous basic text there is a passage that says, “The time has come when that tired old lie, ‘Once an addict, always an addict,’ will no longer be tolerated by either society or the addict himself. We do recover.” This means that people suffering from addiction can and do recover. There is hope in letting go of that ‘tired old lie’ or label.
We all know someone affected by substance use whether it be a family member, friend, coworker, neighbor … the list goes on. This is significant because it means addiction runs through life as a common thread.
Tips on changing stigma
But how do we face it? How do we change stigma? Maybe we start by building authentic connection, recognizing that we too are human – vulnerable to suffering with a desire for love and acceptance, just like someone who is facing addiction.
Consider these tips:
- Stop labeling: First, you have to recognize when you use labels and stop doing so. Lose the blame factor. Put the person before the label.
- Cultivate curiosity: This is as simple as asking questions. Notice when you start to place judgments and start to let them go. Ask someone in recovery about their experience and be open with your concerns or ideas, too.
- Develop connection: Share stories – listening to someone’s story builds connection while telling your story builds acceptance of your experience. It’s likely you have more in common than you think!
- Learn about addiction: Get educated about the neurobiology of substance use.
- Pass it on and pay it forward: Participate in continuing the conversation; connect with and inform others. This could be as simple as letting others know why the “addict” label doesn’t work.
Even a very small step can make a big impact
Although labeling does a lot for us by giving us the ability to categorize and to try to make sense of facts, it can also lead to prejudice and discrimination. Labels have the ability to become harmful and dehumanize; we can’t expect to know someone based on just that.
The old adage “Never judges a book by its cover” or in this case, its title, can be applied. Using the term “addict” creates a barrier to understanding chemical dependency and those who are affected by it. It is true that some people in recovery chose to identify with the term, but they do so in a way that promotes their recovery. That is something we can all learn more about.
You may not want to stop using the “addict” label, but I bet there is a label you’ve faced yourself, one you’d like to see less of. Challenge that label in the same way and counter the stigma attached to it.
I wonder: What would you want someone to know about you? It’s probably not that you’re just another tired old label.