Addicts hate themselves, with increasing intensity as addiction worsens, for their inability to control their drinking and drugging and for their repeated, daily, always-broken promises to themselves that they’ll finally stop. They blame their self-loathing on weakness. So do most others.
The stigma associated with drug addiction is a huge impediment to getting addicts into treatment. I know. The shame I felt over my inability to control my drinking, over what I saw (and was sure everyone else saw) as my overwhelming weakness, contributed mightily to my denial and refusal to consider treatment. I ignored the repeated urging of those who loved me that I’d die, and soon, if I didn’t go to rehab. I also disregarded the one tightly compartmentalized part of my rational mind that knew it was killing me.
Stigma is widely shared both by addicts and the general public. For example, two-thirds of respondents in a 2004 poll attached a stigma to addiction.1 Faced with this widespread derogatory attitude, who would want to admit to the kind of failure, weakness and irresponsibility that most associate with addiction? Next to nobody.
The strength of the stigma was one of the original reasons Alcoholics Anonymous is anonymous.
It wasn’t until I understood that addiction is a legitimate brain disease that I was able to discard the stigma I attached to my alcoholism. That’s why the science of addiction is so important. Demonstrating that addiction is a biological brain disease to those who doubt it helps fight the stigma, promotes willingness to enter treatment and saves lives.
1. An Anti-Addiction Pill?, The New York Times Magazine, June 25, 2006.