Alcoholism and addiction have long been stigmatized. Those of us suffering from the disease of addiction (and mental illness) have often felt judgment from friends, family members, the public, and even ourselves.
Current events involving George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks have been used by some to further stigmatize addicts and alcoholics. For the past weeks, I’ve seen social media posts and newspapers pointing to the fact that Mr. Floyd had drugs in his system, and that Mr. Brooks was drunk. Some have said Mr. Brooks got what he deserved for having driven drunk, or that Mr. Floyd’s life should not be used as a call for racial equality because he had Fentanyl in his system. While many people do not devalue the lives of those of us who use (or have used) drugs or alcohol, we should talk about those who do.
I write about this call for discussion not so we can educate others who rush to judgment, though that education is critically important. Rather, I want us to talk about how it changes how we perceive and judge ourselves. Stigma of any kind can impact our self-esteem and how we see ourselves. We need to talk through it honestly until we get to the place where we can all say:
NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE SAYS, WE MATTER, AND WE DESERVE TO LOVE OURSELVES ENOUGH TO EMBRACE RECOVERY.
I have yet to meet a newcomer who walks into recovery with a healthy sense of self. We all walk into recovery broken. In Step Two of the AA’s book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the bottoms we hit are discussed. Some of us hit low bottoms that include homelessness and jail, and some of us have higher bottoms with minimal consequences. But, every single one of us has hit a bottom that impacts how we perceive ourselves.
I have a clear memory of one of my first conversations with my sponsor. I had three months sober and cried to her saying how much I hated myself for becoming an addict and hurting my family. I was suicidal when I started my recovery journey. At three months sober, I still had a deep sense of self-hatred and could not see the value in my own life. Knowing that other people stigmatized me as I stigmatized myself, did not help me see the intrinsic value I had just by nature of being a human being.
The program of Alcoholics Anonymous offers us help for this self-hatred. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Doctor’s Opinion is placed at the very beginning of the book. Before we delve into the twelve steps, we first learn about the disease concept of alcoholism. We are taught that we are not bad people but are sick people who have a right to get well.
The Doctor’s Opinion gives us the grace we need to let go of self-hatred long enough to work the steps that will free us. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous itself proves that we are incredibly valuable human beings. Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson were stigmatized. They both had low bottoms. Yet, look what they did for the world after they recovered! They designed a program that is used around the world and has saved millions and millions of lives. They were sick, they got well, and they changed the world for the better for having done so.
So, if you are new and have read disturbing articles stigmatizing the disease we fight together, stay strong. Fall back on the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is our textbook because it teaches us about who we are, how we behave, recover, and help others.
As I read the upsetting comments about Mr. Floyd and Mr. Rayshard, I thought about the many heroes that have come through Breakthrough Recovery Outreach and AA home groups around the world. I remembered a woman who was a nurse and an alcoholic. When she got sober, she started a hospice program at the hospital she worked for and spent the rest of her life helping sick patients die with dignity. When a patient had no family, she sat at their bedside through the night praying with them, holding their hands, and keeping them comfortable. Had she allowed stigma to prevent her from recovery, the world would have lost – and badly.
Then there is the schizophrenic homeless man that was at every meeting I attended as a newcomer. Every morning, he came up to me and said, “Hello, Sunshine.” The world didn’t feel sunny to me at the time, but I could not resist his joyful welcome. It pushed me into my seat – where I heard him share about how much he loved his mother, and his sobriety. His honesty always touched my heart. He was tough enough to cry, kind enough to hug everyone who walked through the door, and brave enough to face not one illness, but two. On the many mornings I would walk outside and sit on the curb and cry, it was he who followed me outside and said, “Let it out. You are going to be ok. You are going to be great.” He faced the stigma of alcoholism, of being homeless, and mental illness. But, WOW, did he ever make the world a better place. And, he helped me every single day until I became the kind of person who also cheerfully greeted newcomers at the door.
If you are new and experiencing feelings of shame over your addiction, please call your sponsor, share about your feelings in meetings, and challenge yourself to look at the people you are recovering with – because you will see their value. Seeing the value in our fellows helps us see the value in ourselves. Sharing allows us to turn our focus away from social stigmas about alcoholism and addiction and towards solutions that help us become healthy members who positively contribute to society.
Working the twelve steps also helps us change the way we view ourselves, so work them. Don’t skip steps four and five. Those two steps help us to discover the root cause of the pain that led us to our addiction. It’s also helpful to listen to fellow alcoholics tell their stories. As we hear about the abuse they suffered as a child, the losses they could not bear, the rape they told nobody about, it becomes clear that healing, not stigmatization, is what is needed. Compassion for our fellows can and does allow for compassion for ourselves.
Stigmas are just talk and talk is cheap. They don’t tell the most important truth of all which is this:
We are a group of men and women who can and do experience recovery of mind and body.
We are all worth that gift. Let’s not let anyone tell us otherwise.
At Breakthrough Recovery Outreach, we are committed to helping you recover, treat your disease, and become your best self. Call us and let us help you today.