Stigma comes in many forms. Sometimes, it’s clear. A co-worker or family member might tell us to “just get over it.” Or a supervisor might question a sick day taken for mental health or recovery purposes. These actions judge our motives and abilities, defining us as weaker or less worthy. What’s harder is the smaller and internal stigmas.
As people living with addiction, we often question ourselves. We take the implied lessons we learned over years of watching people do what people are “supposed” to do and judge ourselves against that standard. At work, we see the person who never misses a day and we ask ourselves, “Why can’t I do that?” Or watch the person who seems to know exactly how to handle a situation every time and wonder what they have that we don’t. Stigma is far more than others telling us that who we are or how we handle circumstances is wrong or different, it is the quiet voices in our heads that question our motives and abilities as well.
What is Stigma?
Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, person or quality. It is a social definition applied to people who, for whatever reason, society has labeled as undesirable. Stigma and shame work hand in hand and, at times, can be beneficial. Together, these things can deter some people who might work outside of and against society from activities that would cause harm such as some criminals. It is an imperfect system. Every community has a small percentage of its population who will act against its interests no matter the consequences but it does provide certain lubrication for social interaction.
How many people have stories of being caught stealing when they were young and being dragged into a frightening and shameful display of contrition and amends making by a parent or shopkeeper? How many of these kids learned that it is just not worth it to steal? It is better to do without and live within expected boundaries than to risk another such episode.
A problem arises when stigma is applied to people for things beyond their control. In the past, large portions of the population were isolated because of diseases like leprosy, or the Black Death. A more recent example is the attitude toward addiction. By blaming the victim, we can convince ourselves that we are safe. We can convince ourselves that the ill did something to earn their fate and that we are “better.”
How to Address Stigma
It is important to address stigma as soon as we experience it, both as people living with illness and advocates for others. Stigma reduces access to treatment and recovery. It isolates and creates situations that, in the least, prolong suffering and, at the other extreme, can lead to suicide or overdose and the possibility of future generations becoming ill as well. Prevention, the best defense against addiction, is stymied when information and honest communication is buried under shame and humiliation.
Addressing stigma takes courage and skill. First, it is important to change how we think of ourselves. We are not victims. We do not deserve pity. We are strong and contributing members of our communities who have become ill through no fault of our own. Internalizing these ideas gives us the strength with which to stand up to people who, either intentionally or not, stigmatize us and to change how we think of ourselves.
With this strength, we set boundaries. For instance, when questioned about taking a day off for recovery purposes, we need to find our comfort level. Not everyone needs to know the details of our health. We share what is comfortable. Not that hiding is advisable, but privacy is a right and a requirement for people in recovery. If the person questioning us is not a trusted ally or friend, it is perfectly acceptable to say that we were unwell and leave it at that. If pushed, it is important to be firm. Be clear and assertive. Do not attack or get defensive. Simply repeat your original statement and ask that your privacy be respected. That level of assertiveness is a skill developed with time and practice. However, as you become more comfortable with it, you will find strength and clarity you might have missed before.
The skills needed to battle stigma and to seek treatment for our illness require the courage to stand up and demand respect. In order to get that respect, we have to believe that we deserve it. Our disease does not identify us. We are people capable of making healthier decisions. If you have reached this point, good. You are a worthy person and Fort Worth Recovery can help you build the skills to live the life you were born to live. Call us today at 817 382 2894 or visit us online. It is important to remember that assertiveness creates relationships in which communication flows freely, without judgment or fear. Self-advocacy is not selfish. It is the cornerstone of recovery.