I recently spoke with a woman at a support group for people who have lost loved ones to drug overdose. One of a fortunate few, her son not only survived, but entered recovery. She was describing the isolation she experienced when her son was in the throes of addiction; she felt like she was the only one who struggled with the fear, uncertainty and powerlessness over her son's destructive and irrational behavior.
She would walk down the street, look at other people, and think she was the only one who felt alone and helpless.
In the small New England city where I live, there have been seven overdose deaths... this month alone. The term crisis is being used. Nearby cities and surrounding smaller communities are the same.
Addiction is the smallpox epidemic of our time, and it's an equal opportunity destroyer.
There is no longer a stereotypical addict. Addiction has a new face, and it looks just like our friends, neighbors, and worse—our sons and daughters. The contemporary alcoholic more likely wears a uniform, suit or workout gear than trench coat. Today's opioid addicts are more likely bankers with back pain or amateur athletes with knee issues than the typical junkies of old.
However, the real new faces of addiction are the overdosing teens and 20-somethings with their high school senior pictures on their obituaries.
How did it come to this? No one woke up in the morning and made a decision to start using heroin intravenously. A progression of circumstances and situations beyond their control changed their lives into something they never wanted or thought possible. It was a matter of degree; pain, fear and desperation are the usual motivators. For the teens and 20-somethings, maybe they just liked the way drugs made them feel (or not feel). Addiction is not just a drug problem, it's a life problem.
Those obituaries are the first signal of a shift. The courage and honesty of these families as they pull back the curtain, revealing ordeals which were kept private in the past, begin to liberate others from the stigma of addiction in turn. The whispers of denial are giving way to the clear and selfless voice of the truth. The people and families who have suffered tragic loss now understand that the same old silence does nothing to change things.
The stigma of addiction is rooted in perception, or more accurately, misperception. Addiction is a disease process, and this concept is difficult or impossible for many to accept. The addict or alcoholic has no more choice or control over using or drinking than the cancer sufferer has over growing tumors. But there is a profound difference. While cancer survivors are proudly wearing T-shirts and organizing events to promote awareness in the public, recovering addicts are hiding in church basements, afraid to use their last names. Addiction is a shame-based disease.
In the effort to end addiction, shame and stigma are principal obstacles. On a personal level, the addicted feel as overwhelmed with feelings of embarrassment and disgrace as they do with the chemical effects of their substance of choice. Interpersonally, relationships across the board suffer. Family, friends and loved ones, as well as community and professional relations are at a loss; too often, issues of addiction go ignored, or are awkwardly mishandled. Just as the addicted and those who care about them struggle with discomfort and denial, we struggle with denial on a cultural level. The resulting social ostracism generated by the stigma perpetuates that stigma, creating a destructive cycle that threatens us individually and collectively.
If some foreign power or terrorist organization was doing to us what addiction is doing to us, how would we react? If some outside entity were reaching into our communities, families and lives and creating the same devastation that addiction is causing, what would our response be? There would be across-the-board national outrage. Funds would be allocated, resources would be mobilized, and the best minds would be brought to bear on the problem. It would be like a declaration of war on addiction (how's that war on drugs working out?).
And wouldn’t we honor the dead differently? And finally, knowing that we could prevent them from becoming casualties, wouldn't we care appropriately for the wounded (the addicted)?
That woman I spoke with now wonders how many people she passes on the street are suffering in the same fearful silence as she once did. She now knows she's not the only one.