The Stigma of Drug Addiction: How Does It Affect Families Seeking Help?

One of the biggest barriers to patients getting help is the stigma of addiction. The stigma is so pervasive that many family members also resist seeking help for a loved one and for themselves out of fear of discrimination, shame from feeling like a failure or embarrassment from being judged by others. This happens too often resulting in too many families destroyed.

Addiction affects many individuals and families. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. And it begins with sharing our stories, better public education and a broader sense of acceptance of addiction as a treatable disease similar to diabetes, heart disease, etc.

Read what these five parents had to say about the stigma of addiction:

You get judged by so many people who are ignorant of the issues at hand.

I have felt shame about having a child who is an addict. It’s one of the toughest emotions I’ve had to deal with. The ignorance of others; neighbors, friends, family, etc., is frustrating and can make you feel bad about yourself. I’ve found that reading blogs and going to Alanon meetings have been a big help to be able to hear from people who have first-hand experience, instead of outside judgment. – Susan

Everyone thinks your child has a moral failing.

Family members and friends do not understand. They try, but society and media have them convinced that there is something amoral or weak about people with addiction. I get asked, “Why would he do this to you?” or “Why do you allow him to live this way?” I am perceived as a bad parent by many, and I have been completely torn apart by some neighbors on a very public social network. My son is considered by many to just be a problem that society doesn’t need. I tell my friends and family, “It was his choice to try heroin the first time. That was his very bad choice. After that, he had no choice.” No one would choose death or jail if it wasn’t a disease. Anyone who can’t see that, well, they are the problem. – Colleen

We were ashamed, and spent so much time in denial.

We spent years hiding from our son’s addiction. We denied it, we were ashamed of it, we tried protecting him from it, if we could have disappeared we would have. That strategy served no one well.

When we were able to overcome our shame we were finally able to take the first steps forward in helping ourselves and being in a place to help him when the time comes. We also began to realize that when people ask about our son it was because they cared about us and they cared about him. It isn’t fair to shut out these people that care for us because we are ashamed and embarrassed. I actually wrote a posting for The Partnership about overcoming your shame. – Ron

I feel so isolated — no one else can relate.

For me, sometimes the hardest part is the isolation. There are so few people with whom I can share my thoughts and feelings about this. Unless someone lives with addiction, it is hard to relate. Even the most caring person hardly knows what to say. Granted, most people who say the “wrong” thing are simply uninformed. But I barely have the strength to cope with my situation much less have to hear these (often) well-meaning, but usually off the mark comments. So rather than expose myself to more pain, I have learned to limit my sharing. I am trying harder to be grateful for those I do have with whom I can share. And I am looking for an avenue to influence a shift in society’s attitude towards addiction. – Joe

It’s extremely lonely.

I noticed something about being the parent of someone who is addicted to drugs. It is a very lonely thing. If my child had any other disease, the people in my life would be surrounding me with comfort and support. Because my son has the disease of addiction I am left to deal with it on my own… I notice that even if I have a problem with my son that does NOT concern addiction, the others in my life still don’t seem to want to help because of, I assume the trouble he has caused in the past because of his addiction. – Carol

Did your family experience any stigma around your child’s addiction?
How did it affect you? How did you overcome it? Please share your experience in the comments below.

11 Responses

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    Patti Herndon

    March 16, 2013 at 12:42 AM

    However hard it is on us, as parents, to parent a child with a substance use disorder or co-occurring disorder, it is exceedingly more difficult for our son/daughter to be the individual challenged by an addiction to alcohol and/or other drugs (substance use disorder).

    Our shame and embarrassment about their chronic condition is something we MUST get appropriate support/help for so that we can irradiate its highly negative impact on our narratives about the journey, as well as its resulting limiting impact on our son/daughter’s sense of self efficacy/ability to recover/to reach for/move toward a healthier and healthier life.

    If we are to act in a role of effective, recovery-purposed support/advocate on our son/daughter’s behalf; we will not have space/room/energy to allow our sense of shame and embarrassment, about their substance use disorder, to limit our own potential/our responsibility to encourage their recovery and their growing sense of self efficacy regarding their challenge.

    We need to OWN that a substance use disorder/an addiction to drugs or alcohol is not something that a person acquires due to a deficit in their character, or as a result of absent moral compass…nor is it a condition that is about ‘willful bad behavior’.

    Addiction/substance use disorder is ‘to infinity’ more complex than any of those common, outdated, stigma-generating perspectives attempt to explain.

    Addiction can happen to anyone.

    The more we welcome responsibility in educating ourselves, intensely, as parents/CSOs/advocates…and do so utilizing multiple, current, informational resources on addiction; the more we grow healthy, accurate perspectives in regard to our loved one’s challenge of substance use disorder….and the more hope and coping muscles we build as advocates for them/ourselves/our family…our communities.

    This gained and expanding perspective allows us to ‘tune out’ the noise that commonly resonates around the subject of addiction -that off key melody that only serves stigma, negative narratives and stereotypes about individuals with an addiction challenge, as well as their family members. It’s time to sing out a new song about the journey.

    We deserve increasing reserves of hope about the journey of addiction and the likelihood of recovery. It’s a process -recovery is. It takes a lot of time, in many cases. We gotta be appropriately prepared for whatever amount of time it’s going to take, in order to be equipped to see/recognize ‘any’ amount of increasing momentum in recovery, when it’s occurring – Healthy, realistic expectations/goals based on our ‘individual’ circumstances. That’s how we build on momentum.

    The reality is, our practice of negative narratives/perspectives about our challenge will eat up our precious reserves of hope and sense of empowerment…that sense of empowerment that pushes us on, that assures us that we ‘can’ overcome the hurdles that will present in our individual circumstances. Don’t sign over ANY of the real estate in your thoughts/perspectives that would have shame and embarrassment building a hotel in your brain space – NOT a GOOD investment of your faculties.

    Shame and embarrassment about our kid, challenged by an addiction or chronic mental health condition is mostly a result of the insidious presence of societal and cultural stigma. Stigma has a foothold as a result of our collective ‘speaking and thinking it’ into being. It (‘stigma’) can be runnin’ the show, and, much of the time, we don’t even recognize its nasty, off-key voice in our heads…. Negative, marginalizing, hope-depleting perceptions/perspectives/labels -which, as a byproduct, often times, serves the stereotyping of persons with a substances use disorder/other mental health-related condition, as well as it stereotyping us, the family members.

    In addition, -after a point, especially- shame is a very self-involved, energy-robbing exercise in futility. We are the only ones who can decide to kick those kinds of stigma-centric thoughts out of our frame of reference regarding our son/daughter/ourselves … and all others directly impacted by an addiction. ‘All’ of us, certainly, individuals who deserve recovery, peace, health, and better lived moments.

    Let it Go: Kick shames’ arse to the side of road and let it parish …because ‘shame’ is toxic. It’s, just, void, dark stuff that is never going to add light to the path/the road ahead.

    Godspeed… and blessings and peace abundant!

    Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

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