Addiction is a disease: destigmatizing the term “addict”
Someone dies from a drug overdose every 7.5 minutes in the United States, according to the latest figures from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). This is nearly a 100% increase since 2010. These deaths mean orphaned children, childless parents and crushed spouses.
By understanding and destigmatizing addiction, those numbers can be reduced. When people feel less guilt and shame about having the disease of chemical dependency, they seek treatment and begin recovery sooner.
What is addiction?
According to NIDA, addiction is defined as a chronic brain disease involving a compulsion to use a drug (alcohol, opioids, etc.), even when doing so causes social, legal, medical and other problems. Like cancer, chemical dependency is a relapsing disease. There are times when it seems under control or even eliminated, but then it comes back.
People often begin using a drug to ease physical pain, as with prescribed painkillers, or cope with stress from past trauma or current mental illness, such as social anxiety, molestation, combat experience or something else. Over time, people become psychologically dependent upon the relief the drug provides (“I can’t get through the day without a drink”). As their body gets used to a certain level of the drug, it starts to need that level to feel “normal,” which means a physical dependence has also developed.
Some common signs that a person has developed a drug addiction include:
- A preoccupation with the drug: The person may choose to spend most of their free time with strangers or acquaintances who use opiates instead of family and close friends who don’t.
- An increased tolerance for the drug: Using the same amount of the drug no longer produces the same effects, so more is used.
- Using greater amounts or for longer periods of time than intended: Instead of a single glass of beer or a single pain pill, drinking a six-pack of beer or taking multiple pain pills at once.
- Continued use despite negative experiences: Getting a DUI and continuing to consume alcohol.
- Loss of control over the amount of the drug used: Saying they’ll just have two glasses of wine and not being able to stick to that number.
- Withdrawal symptoms: When the person doesn’t have access to (enough of) the drug, they begin to experience physical and mental distress including tremors, irritability, headaches, and trouble sleeping.
Why is addiction stigma a problem?
When people feel blamed and attacked for their disease, they are less likely to seek recovery. This person may mistakenly believe they are weak or flawed instead of understanding they have developed a disease, just like diabetes, cancer or dementia.
Eating sugar is not systematically looked down upon for someone with diabetes. When their blood sugar gets too high, they are offered medications and other assistance to help them keep their glucose under control. Yet, when someone who has an addiction uses, they are often seen and spoken to as if they are a bad person who is irresponsible, and they’re treated as if they are their disease.
Some stigmatizing behaviors it’s helpful for friends and family to avoid include:
- Using belittling names like “junkie,” “wino” or “crackhead.” These are human beings who have a disease. More respectful terms could be someone “is struggling with opiates” or “has a problem with alcohol.”
- Making someone feel guilty about their illness by saying things like “You love alcohol more than your family,” or “You’re ruining our marriage every time you stick that needle in your arm.”
- Saying “just quit,” as though having an addiction is like choosing an outfit to wear. This minimizes a person’s struggle with the disease. You may also make them feel as though they are stupid or inadequate because they can’t immediately stop using. The guilt and shame just push them back to the drug for comfort and relief.
When people struggling with chemical dependency are supported in seeking and engaging in the psychological and medical assistance that they need to recover, they are more likely to successfully complete treatment plans and regain a stable lifestyle.
The stigma many people who have a drug addiction experience from society often stems from the idea that they can “just stop” and are simply choosing not to do so. But, because they have a brain disease that has hijacked their decision-making and thinking, it’s not that simple.
Saying “Why don’t you just stop using?” to someone who is dealing with chemical dependency may as well translate into “Why don’t you just quit breathing?” The drug has become a necessity to their mind and body. The mere thought of not having access to it can cause panic. Fear and guilt tend to increase use and intensify addiction.
Stigma can also affect the people who love a person with an addiction. Family and friends may attempt to hide the symptoms from other people. Coworkers cover for the addicted person when they’re too hungover to get to work on time. Children babysit their younger siblings when the addicted parent is too high to manage household needs. Friends buy the person with an addiction alcohol or drugs as gifts for birthdays or to celebrate an accomplishment.
In a world where there are no moral judgments for developing a mental health issue, these people would be less likely to do such things. They would be more comfortable having the symptoms out in the open and directly encouraging their loved one to get the help they need.
A vision of acceptance: Portugal
Since 2001, Portugal has taken steps in the opposite direction of the U.S. Instead of increasing criminal penalties and judgment related to drug use, abuse and addiction, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. This has led to a dramatic decrease in negative side effects such as overdose deaths and HIV contraction.
In addition to decriminalizing drug use and possession, Portugal has pushed for increased drug abuse prevention and treatment methods. Making the idea of getting treatment for an addiction an everyday thing helps reduce the perception of someone with an addiction being “strange” or “abnormal.” That allows people around them, who see the symptoms and problems the addiction is creating, to become more comfortable confronting the disease without disrespecting the person with the disease.
SaVida Health understands the importance of clients being treated with respect and receiving the addiction treatment they need to live happy and healthy lives. But that can’t happen until the person struggling with addiction, or their loved ones, reach out for the necessary treatment. Call SaVida Health at (833) 356-4080, request a call back or visit our website to learn more about family addiction, medication-assisted treatment for opioid or alcohol addiction and the recovery process.