Why so much shame in addiction?

Yesterday I wrote a post about my late ex-husband who died a year ago of alcoholism. Many people reached out to me publicly with their thoughts and a few more, privately, about their own personal stories of loved ones who also suffer with alcoholism and addiction. Nearly everyone can name someone who has been affected by addiction in someway. It brought to my attention the vast amount of shame surrounding alcoholism and addiction in general. But why?

Photo borrowed from ehow.com article about how to deal with shame. http://www.ehow.com/how_2105051_deal-shame.html

I realize that the addiction causes the addict to act in shameful ways. Gerard would hide bottles wherever he could. He would put his drinks in unmarked cups, chew gum so you couldn't smell the alcohol on his breath. He would try not to show that he was drunk. I could always tell. Although he was a "happy drunk" I could tell within about two seconds that he was drinking and how much he'd had to drink so far. I saw the incredible sadness, shame and guilt he felt the next morning after a binge. This would cause him to drink again, and so the destructive cycle would continue.

As someone who loves the addict, the shame is also cast on you - shame by association. At least that's how it feels. It causes you to hide your own fears and feelings of helplessness around the problem. But why so much shame?

Alcoholism, and addiction in general causes so much sorrow and pain for so many. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates that 17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence. That's just alcohol, the most commonly addictive substance.  The website sites the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), that estimates 20 percent of the US population uses prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.

This is a rampant problem that is kept behind closed doors. There few discussions in the media about this complex problem. It becomes a topic only when there is a tragic death of a celebrity, and then the poor individual is cast in terrible judgment. The core of the issue - addiction - is scarcely addressed and then whole issue is quickly forgotten with the next breaking news story. But why? It's kept in secret because of the shame.

Likely, the shame stems from the lack of understanding about what causes addiction - is it a disease or a lifestyle choice? It's so easy for some (presumably those  few without first hand experience) to say that it's a matter of choice. I believe it's a physical condition - a disease or a mental illness. I sense it's a little of both. Who would choose to give up control of their life to something that destroys nearly everything in its path? Why would someone choose to hurt the people they love over and over?

Sadly, there are few recovery treatment options. Alcoholics Anonymous is effective for many people, and thank God that many are able to recover. I am grateful for Al-Anon, which helped me through my own personal struggles. It's easily accessible and I recommend anyone facing this complex problem to seek out help from these groups. Sadly, AA was not effective for Gerard. So many addicts do not recover. It's a complicated problem, so why aren't there more types of recovery programs?

It's easy to rally around cures for diseases because there is much compassion for those inflicted. We plan 5K races, wear colorful plastic bracelets, put stickers on our cars...etc. Where are the rallying cries around addiction?

I believe it's because of the shame. The shame keeps us from talking about addiction and mental illness. Without talk, nothing will change. How many more beautiful souls will lose their battles to addiction before we start treating it as a disease, stop feeling ashamed and start to find solutions? Once we do I think we will see so  many improvements in our society.

If I'm right, and it's not a choice then there is no shame. If we see it as a disease, it's easier to have compassion for those who are inflicted.  It all starts with compassion. Regardless of if you believe it's a choice or a disease, compassion still is the answer. Until you've walked a mile in someone's shoes you should not pass judgment on their actions. Put judgment aside and have compassion for others.

Filed under: Opinion


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    I am so sorry to hear about your ex-husband. Being powerless over others' addictions can be a sad and lonely place, indeed. Al-Anon Family Groups is a wonderful resource, and I'm so glad you found strength there. I wanted you to know that there are many programs for both alcoholics and their loved ones. Not everyone gets sober the same way and 12-step programs are not the only ones that work. I'm so terribly sorry that your ex did not find recovery, and grateful that you are telling his story and asking questions.

    I'm including the link to our resources page. I hope that you and your readers will find a program on the list that suits you!!


    Thank you SO much for your honesty! I will be sharing this post with our readers via twitter and facebook. This is such an important topic, and I appreciate your willingness and bravery to write about it here.

    It is my hope that one day there will be less shame associated with addiction AND recovery. Until that day, we can support each other.

  • Julie, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and for providing your link to resources. I'm glad to know that there are other recovery options. Thank you for sharing my blog post, too!

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    Current Rehab Services haven't got the Psychotherapy [Not Psych Psychotherapy, now obsolete] to help the addict.

    Drug Addiction

    What causes the mind to depart from rational thought and behaviour?

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