Today, we will be discussing strategies for overcoming feelings of shame and stigma in addiction recovery.
To provide some context on my understanding of shame in addiction recovery:
At one of our Recovery Café film nights we showed a film called “The Anonymous People”. The film explored addiction and recovery in the USA. It said approx. 2/3rds of US families were touched by addiction in some way and that there was some
23 million people in recovery from addiction too.
Here is the trailer:
Looking at the UK situation we must extrapolate numbers in the UK as we don’t officially measure recovery, we measure prevalence of the problem (there are approx. 3m people reporting drug & alcohol use [to June 2022] and approx.
275k people in treatment drug & alcohol)
However, we can reasonably say that most people in the UK know someone who is touched by addiction and in our adult population (18 – 59 year olds) we have approx. 4million people who would class themselves as either in recovery from substance use addiction or who would say they had a problem with substance use (inc. alcohol) that they no longer have (the 4m is extrapolating from US research by John Kelley).
Changing the narrative:
When we started Towards Recovery in 2012 some of our key aims were to:
• Make recovery from addiction more visible, to reduce stigma and make recovery more socially acceptable.
• Show that addiction is a recoverable condition.
• Demonstrate that people in recovery are responsible citizens and community assets that can positively contribute to the wellbeing of those around them.
Despite the numbers and our best intentions, and some great role models out there, addiction is still the stronger narrative and as a result we are still reluctant to step into the light when it comes to talking about it. “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” Chinua Achebe meaning, in my view, that our stories can change the narrative and challenge stigma and shame.
So, I think we have public shame and stigma (the world narrative about addiction and addicts) and then there’s private and personal shame and stigma. Private shame and stigma may be linked to keeping a family secret that someone in the family drinks too much and is violent etc. and as a result the family adapts, and the children pick up that we shouldn’t talk about this to outsiders.
• “Families adapt to cope and the drink problem often becomes the family secret. The family rules don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel develop to keep the problem hidden from the outside world and protect the illusion of a ‘normal’ family”. https://nacoa.org.uk/research-resources/publication/
Personally, we may also carry shame and stigma with us, whether it’s in the form of a family secret that meant we lived a double life (couldn’t invite people round, were guessing at normality and lived out an adapted role so never really got to know ourselves and our potential), or whether it’s because of our own behaviour (traumatised children are at least twice as likely to suffer from problematic substance use) when we were in active addiction and before we initiated recovery.
Knowing what happened to us, rather than submitting to the narrative that there is something wrong with us (as addicts) means that the problem doesn’t reside in us.
Maybe how we behave, using substances, is a rational reaction to an irrational set of circumstances. I’ve attached a link below to the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire that is a practical tool to help you identify things that may have happened to you that explain some of the choices you made while you were experiencing toxic stress. For me it helped me realise I wasn’t broken, I was trying to deal with what was going on around me and things that happened to me when I was younger. It made me realise my substance use was in fact my solution, not the problem. It later became the problem that made everything worse not better. I now have better solutions and understanding my past helped me move forward in different, less destructive way. And there’s no shame in that.
However, it comes into our lives shame and stigma are common issues that many of us in addiction recovery face. These feelings can be challenging to overcome and can prevent many from seeking help and/or maintaining their recovery.
In order to open up the topic and apply the cleansing power of open debate, here are some strategies for dealing with shame and stigma:
1. It is important to understand that addiction is not a moral failing. This understanding can help individuals in recovery to let go of feelings of shame and guilt.
2. It is important to surround yourself with supportive individuals who understand the challenges of addiction recovery and can provide encouragement and guidance.
3. Be kind to yourself and treat yourself with compassion. Practice positive self-talk and avoid negative self-judgments.
4. Instead of dwelling on the past, focus on the present and take things one day at a time. Celebrate small victories and accomplishments.
5. Educate others about addiction and recovery to help reduce stigma and promote understanding.
6. Find meaning and purpose in life by engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfilment.
7. Forgive yourself and others for past mistakes and move forward with a positive mindset.