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[ Opinion ] [ Personal Narratives ]

How to rise above the stigma of addiction that’s been putting you down

        I strolled into the pharmacy, wearing my new dress and having just left the hair salon, I was feeling especially pretty. It took me a while to feel like myself again, but as I had gained my weight back and the color had returned to my face, I started to remember what having self-esteem felt like. The pharmacist glanced up in my direction, smiled kindly and assured me she’d be right with me. After a minute or two the bright-eyed pharmacist took my prescription slip, read it, and immediately I felt a shift in her demeanor; warmth turned to ice, and I started to wish I was a turtle and could retract my head into a shell. This experience was not the first or the last time I was judged and snubbed for trying to fill a Suboxone prescription. In fact, it became such an issue, I developed what I like to refer to as, pharmacy anxiety, a severe unease and emotional distress accompanied by stammering and sweating that joined me on every trip to the pharmacy.

        This intense fear of judgment I had developed subsequent to my addiction was tormenting me. It was such a hindering, mental anguish I would put myself through. I was fine with people who didn’t know about my addiction but people who did know, my family, friends, recovery peers and the pharmacist; whenever I was in their presence, it was extremely difficult for me to get past what they might be thinking about me. Anytime I would go to the restroom, I’d hurry as fast as I could because I was scared they might think I was using while I was in there. I was obsessed with my weight and always felt like I owed people an explanation as to why I was still thinner than I had been pre-addiction, and God forbid I had a break-out, I could hardly leave the house. I knew how everyone felt about drug addicts. I’d see all the comments on Facebook articles, seething with disdain. I felt all that personal rejection from lost friends and family along the way. I had seen myself, the way the pharmacist saw me. Looking at yourself through the eyes of society can be one of the lowest points for someone battling addiction; that moment when you absorb the reality that everyone around you views you as less than, as nothing more than a pest to civilized people. Even though I was no longer an addict, and I was recovering and moving on with my life, I still carried around the drug addict stigma and the heavy burden that came with it. At the time, I was convinced I’d feel that way forever, but eventually, I did manage to overcome it.

       Unfortunately, the negative and harmful perceptions that accompany the disease of addiction won’t go away any time in the near future. Only education can treat stigmas and society doesn’t seem to especially prioritize drug and alcohol abuse education. Because we can’t expect the stigma to evaporate, we’ve got to do our part in controlling it on our end. As long as I wallowed in my insecurities and over analytical neurosis, I wasn’t getting any better, my recovery was stunted. I was still inside my head, completely focused inward. I felt as though I’d lost the right to any self-esteem and things went on this way for a long time. I only began to improve when I started making moves outside of my comfort zone. First big move, I registered for community college at twenty-five years old. Even the initial registration process was a nightmare, hardcore “adulting” from my perspective, but once the paperwork was filed and my courses were on the schedule, I was good to go. I dove into my courses, read all the material and completed all my assignments. I was initially only taking two courses, but when my finals were in and my grades came back, 4.0, dean’s list, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe I’d made such an extraordinary accomplishment. A junkie drop-out turned dean’s list honor student, I felt proud, confident and encouraged. The space in my heart that was filled with shame and self-loathing started to shrink and make some room for more fitting emotions.

        Stigmas about drug addicts are harsh preconceptions people hold that all addicts are morally corrupt, that addicts are losers that aren’t worth anyone’s time or compassion. These stigmas are a disease themselves and the more they are perpetuated, the more damage they can do. The best way for addicts to rise above these stigmas that are putting them down, is to take these perceptions and squash them with accomplishments and enthusiasm.

Common Stigmas Associated With Addiction

“Drug addicts are losers.” Well, don’t be a loser. Get a job, get into school, find fun and interesting things to do like hitting up a museum, learning to surf or learning to cook. Search for events in the nearest cities and expose yourself to new things.

“Drug addicts are morally corrupt.” Be a good person and feel good about yourself through your actions, not because your sponsor says that you should. Give yourself some material to work with and the appropriate feelings of confidence and self-worth will come.

“Drug addicts suck the lives out of the people in their path.” Do kind things for your friends and family, be helpful and sincere. Focus on loving and caring for others, not whether others are loving or caring for you.

“Drug addicts are disgusting and unhealthy.” Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, and find ways to get in some exercise that works for you. Do things to make you feel attractive and appealing. Self-care in the smallest forms is important and often overlooked. My therapist used to encourage me to get dressed up for no reason or simply paint my nails, it helps.

• This last bit of advice isn’t countering a stigma so much, but it is important and often goes unmentioned in the recovery community. Eventually, build relationships with people outside of the program. Recovering addicts often feel most comfortable with other recovering addicts and while I can acknowledge the benefits, I think it is also crucial for recovering addicts to build new relationships with people outside of the addiction and recovery culture. This can help people to feel normal again, to transition back into society and to start to let go of that “addict” label pinned to their self-image.

        By confronting the stereotypes and being better than them, we’re proving to ourselves it does not apply to us. Before long, we won’t be proving it to ourselves anymore, or anyone else for that matter; we’ll just be confident and living fulfilling lives. By exposing ourselves to new interests and new people, we’re working on developing a new identity, an identity we can like and feel proud of. Finding a job, going back to school, and participating in new hobbies are all ways to develop a purpose, and living with a purpose is the single most crucial aspect to a successful recovery. I used to truly hate myself, I could not forgive myself, and I lived and believed in that stigma more than I believed in myself. Today I consider my past issues with addiction an interesting piece of my puzzle. I can talk about it like it’s a far away past, and not an excruciating present. We are not just addicts; we are exponentially more than a stigma, regardless of the way the world perceives us. We can defeat the discrimination and debunk the fallacies. We can prove the world, and the pharmacists, wrong.