Understanding Addiction and Stigma

Recovery Out Loud is a podcast presented by Niznik Behavioral Health which explores all facets of addiction, mental health, and recovery. This week our host, Noelle Carmen, takes on the subject of stigma and its harmful impact on those both in active addiction and in recovery. Noelle shares her personal experience working in the addiction recovery field to shed light on the realities of this disease and to challenge the stigma associated with substance abuse.

Understanding Addiction and Stigma Podcast, Video and Transcript

CARMEN: 00:03[music] Welcome to Recovery Out Loud, a Niznik Behavioral Health podcast, where we discuss addiction, mental health, and recovery. We’ll explore the true nature of addiction with behavioral health experts and hear firsthand personal testimony about what the path to recovery really looks like. From Niznik Behavioral Health, I’m your host, Noelle Carmen. Hi and welcome. I’m very excited to introduce you to our new podcast, Recovery Out Loud, brought to you by Niznik Behavioral Health. Today it is just me, your host, Noelle Carmen. In my work in the addiction field, I realized how much information is out there when it comes to substance use and that the nature of addiction itself means you struggle to recognize that you are suffering from a disease. The disease itself seems to say, “It’s okay. One drink isn’t going to hurt you,” or, “Well, I may drink a little too much, but at least I’m not like that drunk guy on the corner I always see.” Because someone who is struggling with addiction is constantly hiding from life due to trauma. This kind of denial is how they cope. They never learned. They were never taught what to do when painful emotions come up.
CARMEN: 01:26Healing from addiction requires resources. To even be able to seek out resources, you have to have problem-solving skills and a somewhat clear head, and to do that would mean facing a painful reality, suffering. And I assure you, those struggling with addiction suffer tremendously. That’s what makes them vulnerable. And I guarantee you, all of us hide from life sometimes, or at least have that instinct, because avoiding pain is human. It’s a survival technique. But it’s one that comes at a terrible price. To function and thrive, we need to learn a different way, and we can only do that if we are given the chance and the resources to do so. Society puts a lot of shame and blame on people who struggle with addiction, and I get it. People can do terrible things under the influence.
CARMEN: 02:23I was working with a young woman after a concerned friend of hers put us in touch. She was in her early 20s. She’d used meth every day since she was 16. She would call me from the bathroom of the meth house where she lived, and it was gut-wrenching to hear about her circumstances. She’d be on a burner phone down to her last paid minutes, and she always sounded desperate. She’d basically call me when she was coming down from a high and didn’t have a way of getting more meth to keep herself going. Like any of us who suddenly woke up in the worst possible circumstances, she was horrified. Sober, she knew she couldn’t live like this. Then something strange happened. I’d offer her help and resources, and she’d just say, “I have to go,” and hang up. Then I wouldn’t hear from her for a few weeks until she called, crying, telling me how bad things were again. I would offer her help. She would decline again. And I couldn’t understand it. It seemed like she knew she wasn’t okay. Wasn’t that enough? But any small amount of money she could get wouldn’t go to food or housing or a phone. It would go to more meth. She realized on some level that she needed help, but the only way she’d ever known how to help herself was to get more drugs. She’d sober up into a world of pain and poverty and terror. Anybody in her shoes would be looking for an escape. That’s why it’s a vicious cycle. Her solution made the problem worse and worse and worse. What I was offering her was the unknown. She had no frame of reference to know if it would work. In fact, her experiences had never given her a reason to believe things could get better. Nothing else had ever worked for her before, except getting high.
CARMEN: 04:23One day, she called again. I could tell something was different in the way she was speaking. I realized that her using was at its worst, that her life was in danger. I told her, “I’m coming to get you.” I knew she had a little girl whom she hadn’t seen in a long, long time. She had her whole life to live, endless potential swallowed up by disease. I believed if I could get her help, that she would have some kind of chance. If you know anything about meth, you know how addictive it is, how fast it can destroy you. One experience with it can literally ruin your life. It becomes all you can think about or want. Wake up. Take meth. Get high. Come down. Find meth. Take it. Get high. Rinse, wash, and repeat. That was her life. I finally got to her, quote-unquote, “house” – it was a trailer precariously balanced on some cinder blocks – and two pit bulls running out to greet me. I saw there was no electricity. There were a couple of people sitting outside this house, and they might be nice people, and they might not. I was praying, wondering what I was getting myself into. And at that moment, I had to make a decision, and it was not a decision I could make on behalf of anyone else. I could just drive off, and that might have been the smarter thing to do. It was not a safe area, but that’s exactly why I went in. It was not safe, not for any person. Nobody would be there unless they didn’t know a way to get out.
CARMEN: 06:05As I walked toward the house, I saw the bucket in the backyard where apparently everyone was using the restroom. I poked my head in the front door. There were people completely disengaged, almost like undead zombies, just sitting in the dark space. The stench hit me, and it was unbelievable. All I could think at that time was, “Get her out. Get her out.” I found the girl. She was ready, standing there with her bags, and she looked blank and dead on her feet. I got her bag, and I began to lead her out of this hell in the knowledge that there were others there that I just couldn’t take with me. She looked terrified to be leaving, and I could not for the life of me understand why. This was the most horrible place I’d ever been in. When we finally got in the car and began driving, she began to weep. She started saying, “I’m going to miss my home. Those were all the people that loved me. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. It wasn’t really that bad living there. Maybe we should go back.”
CARMEN: 07:14It was at this moment I realized that even though her living situation was unbearable and would certainly have killed her eventually, she was still leaving behind her whole life and everything that she knew. She was taking the kind of leap of faith most of us will never be asked to make in a lifetime. It was a three-hour trip back to the facility where she would detox and begin substance abuse treatment. She ate two burgers and fries and chugged a chocolate shake as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks. She began to share little pieces of her life story. She was molested at a very young age. Both her parents were drug users as well. She had her first baby at 15 by a much older man. It just went on like that and on, tragedy after tragedy. There’s this notion in our society that those who struggle with addiction should just stop, just quit, make some good decisions for once, and be responsible. I hear that all the time in my line of work. And I want to ask, at what point was this young woman supposed to be able to just opt out in the midst of all she suffered? When was she supposed to take stock and invent a completely new way of life she’d never seen before? Even if she had an idea how to do that, where would she even have gotten the message that she deserved better every time someone failed her or hurt her? They were telling her, “This is what you deserve. This is what you are worth as a human being.” And there’s not always a safe place to land after that. Society looks down on people with addictions and shames them. “Just quit,” remember?
CARMEN: 09:13Addiction is not someone’s fault. People with substance abuse issues would never choose that willingly. Nobody would. But it’s equally true that recovery is ultimately up to them. Nobody else can do it for them. That contradiction is the reason this topic is so bewildering for us as a society. Just talking frankly about addiction is a tightrope walk of blame and compassion, accountability versus enabling versus shame. How can you choose to stop doing something that you didn’t really choose to do? I know that what that young woman did that day took unimaginable courage. Why was she able to make the choice that particular day? Why not sooner? I don’t know. I know she is still sober. She still struggles. She has learned to face some of the awful things that happened to her, to say, “I did not deserve for this to happen to me, because nobody deserves for these things to happen,” to say, “Yes, it hurts deeply. But I can survive this painful feeling.”
CARMEN: 10:28There’s another reason we stigmatize and misunderstand addiction, and I think it has to do with avoiding our own pain in the face of others’ addiction. We are told, or we tell ourselves, that those struggling with addiction are weak-willed or lazy or immoral. They do this to themselves, and they should stop. It’s their fault. That’s the crux of the issue. Why do we have such a need for someone to be at fault? I don’t mean holding them accountable for the harm they cause, but condemning them for the disease itself, for simply having it. Where does blame even come into it? Because it’s hard to watch people’s lives be destroyed. If it’s their own fault, it could never happen to us or our loved ones. We can believe there’s no larger problem at work in society or human psychology. There’s something with them, with a few weak individuals who are not and could never be us. This thinking makes us feel safer. And it’s not only heartless; it’s a lie. Addiction is no respecter of socioeconomic status, race, or religion. The trauma from those factors obviously can contribute to the problem. It can happen to anyone. Some people are remarkably adept at hiding their addiction from others and from themselves, and hiding is the problem.
CARMEN: 11:58Our work as a society is to understand that while, yes, it is up to each individual to realize that they alone can rescue themselves from drowning in the end, we can and should throw them a life preserver until they have the chance to get their head above water and eventually learn to swim. That will mean a lot of hard work. It will mean practicing compassion instead of giving in to our fear, learning to love without enabling. To help a drowning person without being pulled down ourselves, it will mean grappling with the difference between accountability and vengeance. It will mean seeing the world as it is, facing up to ugliness and darkness that we’d rather avoid, looking at our pain in the eye, and choosing to take a leap of faith. I’m Noelle Carmen, and this is Recovery Out Loud. [music] This has been Recovery Out Loud. Don’t forget to subscribe and stay up to date with notifications for new episodes. But most importantly, if you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out. Help and a new beginning are only a phone call away.