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[ Personal Narratives ]

Breaking The Stigma

Growing up, society taught me that I should not disclose that I am an alcoholic or an addict; that my addiction is something I should be ashamed of. I heard this message every time someone described someone’s behavior to be that of a “crackheads,” every time someone talked about what a “drunk” someone was or called someone a “junkie,” and every time politicians on TV talked about the War on Drugs and promised every addict would be locked away in prisons for life.

I believed in this stigma for most of my life. I thought, as many people still do, that alcoholics were homeless people, living under bridges with nothing but a bottle in a paper bag. That drug addicts were criminals who only knew how to lie, cheat and steal. That is until I became one myself…

It’s because of this stigma that I refused to acknowledge I was sick. I spent the next decade of my life trying to control something that was uncontrollable. 

I always have to smile when someone tells me I don’t “look like an addict.” Not because I blame them for thinking this way, but because I am now expected to look a certain way in order to be believable. As if my behaviors didn’t give me away years ago. I guess I should take it as a compliment, because when I was sick I was unrecognizable. 

The reality is, I look exactly as an addict does, because addiction knows no boundaries. We are your neighbor, Doctor, teacher, co-worker, caretaker and child. If society wants to paint an honest picture of what an addict looks like, maybe they could start with me.

Here is what I can tell you about my life. I grew up in a loving family, with successful parents and a happy childhood. I never wanted for anything. There wasn’t any abuse or trauma that I could blame my addiction on. There was no neglect, poverty, or addiction in my home. I have searched my life, with a fine-tooth comb, for some pivotal moment that changed everything, and all I can tell you is that the first time I used I knew I wanted more. And not just in the. “Hey that was fun. I want to do that again!” kind of way. But in the, “I want more. More! Give me MORE!” kind of way. 

I was just a normal teenager, seeking self-acceptance and wanting to grow up too fast. Just a normal teenager experimenting with friends. That experimentation lead to full-blown addiction. That little girl, with all of her hopes and dreams, disappeared. I did some deplorable things in the name of my addiction. I abandoned my family, I was violent and spewed hateful words, and I often times put my Addiction before my own daughters welfare. I lied, I manipulated, I self-harmed. And at the end of my active addiction, I was reported missing. Poof! 

As sure as I am sitting here writing this, I can tell you that I didn’t grow up and suddenly announce I wanted to be a professional addict on Career Day. This was learned behavior by a person with the disease of addiction; a sick person, not a bad one. That does not in any way excuse my behavior, because believe me I have worked for years trying to forgive myself for the damage I caused, but it does explain why I lost control so quickly. Because, you see, I am not that woman anymore. There are times when it seems like a different life altogether. 

For years I tried to “figure out my addiction.” I tried to dissect my life to find some moment in time that turned everything upside down, that made me act the way I did. Something that made sense of the chaos I had created. 

Instead of accepting that I had the disease of addiction and getting treatment for it, I continued on in my quest to prove that I was NOT an addict, leaving a path of destruction in my wake. From experience I can tell you that trying to “figure out” addiction is like trying to figure out why cancer consumes the healthiest of people. It doesn’t make sense!

Here’s what I believe. I believe that I was born with this disease. That the switch in my brain that says, “more, more, MORE!” was just waiting to be flipped since the day I was born. Recovery has taught me how to flip that switch off, but I know how easily that light could come back on. THAT is what keeps me moving forward in a healthy direction. “We do not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it…” I am often grateful that things got so bad for me in the end, as crazy as that sounds, because had those things not happened I might still be convinced that I am not an addict, and that is dangerous for both myself and the people in my life who care about me.

When people argue that addiction is not a disease, I do not get angry. It makes me sad, but not angry. I understand what it looks like from the outside. It’s difficult to look at someone who seems perfectly normal, and then watch as they destroy everything that makes them who they are. To watch as they abandon their husbands, wives, children, jobs and homes. I try to share with them my story in hopes they understand the difference between an addict in active addiction and an addict in recovery. In hopes that they understand that the tired old lie, “once an addict, always an addict” is no longer the truth. It is not my truth. 

It’s important for me to be honest about my story for a few reasons, and I will admit that the first one is selfish:

1. The more people I have in my life who can hold me accountable, the better chance I have at leading a life of recovery. 

2. To help others who may be struggling and may not know who they can talk to. Someone, somewhere, might stumble on my writing and for that moment, however brief, they won’t feel alone.

3. To expose the fact that addiction is not just a low-income, inner-city problem. Addiction is alive and well in every community. It truly is an epidemic. The belief that addiction is “not in my backyard” has to be put to rest, or someone you love might be, because addicts are dying every single day. 

Addiction is a shame based disease. I have learned that shame cannot survive when it is spoken out loud; it dissipates the moment it leaves my lips. I’ve learned that words like “addict” and “alcoholic” are not dirty words, but simply words used to describe a medical condition. This is why I am so open about my recovery. If I did not talk about it, to me that would mean I was ashamed of it. I am not ashamed of my past. I cannot change it; it has already been etched into my history, but I can make damn sure I never repeat it.

Vanessa D. 

Milwaukee, WI

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