“ Toxic shame is unbearable and always necessitates a cover-up, a false self. Since one feels his true self is defective and flawed, one needs a false self… As a false self, one tries to be more than human or less than human. Toxic shame is the greatest form of learned domestic violence there is. It destroys human life. Toxic shame is the core of most forms of emotional illness.” ~ John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame That Binds You At some point during their active addiction, every addict feels two emotions – Confusion, because they don’t understand why they made the choices they did or acted the way they did. Shame, because those addicted choices damaged their lives and hurt those around them.
Society’s Stereotypes Contribute to Feelings of Shame
Despite all the signs to the contrary, and in spite of the learned opinions of substance abuse professionals, medical doctors, and psychiatrists specializing in addictive disorders, there still exists an extremely-negative stigma attached to substance abuse disorders. In general, society has held a persistently-negative view of actively-addicted people – the stereotypical idea of a shambling, dirty, homeless, and criminal alcoholic or addict comes to mind. For example, a study conducted in 2013 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health determined that the general public has a much-worse perception of and attitude towards alcoholics/addicts than they do towards people struggling with mental illness. Even worse, this negative perception extends to both the public or private sectors, resulting in a lack of support for any policies that might provide drug-and-alcohol-abusing people assistance in searches for such basics as a job, a home, and health insurance.
Shame and Blame – a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Actively drinking and drugging to excess or relapsing – even a one-time, temporary “slip” – can have disastrous consequences in virtually every area of the addict’s/alcoholic’s life – in their relationships, in their career, and even with the COURT. The substance abuser usually sees these consequences as some form of “punishment” for their addicted behaviors. However, the concept of “punishment” suggests that what the substance abuser did was wrong – that they are at fault, made poor decisions, and that perhaps, something is wrong with them. Such implications can have a harmful effect on the self-esteem of that person, even to the point of pronounced depression or severe anxiety. And guess what many individuals with addictive personalities do when they are depressed or anxious? They try to relieve their anguish by self-medicating.
A Double Standard Now Exists
It used to be taboo – or at the very least, unusual – for people to openly discuss their private mental or psychiatric conditions. Now, people from all walks of life will freely talk about the anti-anxiety pills or antidepressant medications they are taking. This is a good thing – because of their openness, the stigma attached to mental illness has been greatly reduced. Most people understand that illnesses such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder are treatable conditions. But there is still a stigma attached to addiction. If people struggling with substance abuse disorders felt free to be that open, the prejudices, fears, and misconceptions that block public policy and funding for more effective treatment options would be virtually eliminated.
What Do the Experts Have to Say about Shame and Addiction?
Listen to what Dr. Beth McGinty, Ph.D., MS, Assistant Professor for the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, had to say – “The more shame associated with drug addiction, the less likely we as a community will be in a position to change attitudes and give people the help they need. If you can educate the public that these are treatable conditions, we will see higher levels of support for policy changes that benefit people with mental illness and drug addiction.” Dr. McGinty’s words echoed the sentiments of Dr. Nora Volkow, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, whose own grandfather was an alcoholic who committed suicide. In a speech at the 2015 American Psychiatric Association’s Convention, Dr. Volkow lamented that her grandfather’s suicide was “one last act of self-hatred”, an emotion common to many people struggling with addiction. This stigmatic shame was also recently addressed by the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. Dr. Murthy’s belief is that the way to combat addiction in America is to treat substance abuse disorders with the same compassion, skill, and urgency as other recognized chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart disease. To do otherwise, says Dr. Murthy, denies millions of people from effective treatment – people who “could have lived fulfilling lives and contributed to society, and otherwise were consigned to very difficult situations, and in some cases, illness and death.”
How to Overcome Shame for Your or Someone Else’s Addiction
Does any of this sound familiar?
- This is ALL YOUR FAULT!
- If you weren’t so weak, everything would be fine!
- If you cared about me or our children, you would stop!
- YOU’RE the reason I drink!
It is far too easy to blame the suffering substance abuser for their addiction. Alternatively, it is just as easy to accept the blame for someone else’s addiction. After all, aren’t we supposed to protect our loved ones? But that sort of guilt and blame and shame is counterproductive because it keeps us from speaking up and doing the right thing – getting needed professional help. ONCE AND FOR ALL:
- Addiction is a disease
- No one chooses to become addicted
- Addiction is no one’s fault
- Addiction is incurable, but a person CAN learn to manage the disease and live a productive life
In this situation, perhaps the words of a successfully-recovering addict are apt. Russell Brand, the famous comedian and activist have said, “The mentality and behavior of drug addicts and alcoholics are wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless over their addiction, and unless they have structured help, they have no hope.”