It almost seems unnecessary to say that there's stigma surrounding addiction and recovery. The most prominent sobriety support group out there has "Anonymous" right in the name, in part for this reason! AA cofounder Bill Wilson once wrote about attitudes he faced when the organization was founded: "Though ex-drinkers, we still thought we had to hide from public distrust and contempt."
Nearly a century later, we've come a long way—just look at the openly sober and proud members of All Sober's social media communities.
Nonetheless, most people in recovery can easily recall times when they faced intrusive and uncomfortable remarks, at very least. And many encounter more hostile and harmful expressions—ranging from the sneers of a family member to disrespect from a higher-up at work.
It takes remarkable courage and tenacity to overcome addiction, but some people will still pass judgment. It's only human for us to be distracted and deterred by what others may say or think of us, even when we know they're in the wrong. Stigma is not your job to manage. But it can be helpful to learn how to navigate it.
What Is Stigma?
Stigma is often rooted in a lack of understanding, though in some cases, it can also be due to a lack of empathy. For people who have not dealt with mental health disorders, it can be difficult to grasp the complexity of addiction and recovery. Unfortunately, some people see stigma as an excuse to scorn, belittle and otherwise shame those who live differently.
Australia's New South Wales Ministry of Health has a simple, solid sum-up of what addiction stigma today often looks like: "When a person is labeled by their illness, they are no longer seen as the person they are, but as part of a stereotyped group."
Why do others stigmatize people with addiction issues?
- Ignorance or lack of understanding
- Believing fear-based teachings and stereotypes
- Having their own difficult experiences with someone who's had addiction problems
If you or a loved one are facing stigma because of your past with addiction, there are ways to manage or deflect the discomfort that comes with it. Remember: You overcame addiction. Almost any stigma situation will be nothing compared to that.
Be on the Lookout: Forms of Stigma
When it comes to addiction and recovery, stigma can show up in a few ways:
- Personal stigma: Often rooted in negative feelings toward oneself, such as shame and disappointment
- Social stigma: Perpetuated by media portrayals and peer perceptions of addiction; takes the form of rejection, isolation and ridicule
- Institutional stigma: When someone with a history of substance use is treated differently by health care providers, the legal system, employers or schools
If you're beating yourself up for your past, that can make it challenging to stay confident and determined as you work towards healing. And unfortunately, the stigma of others can affect the safety and quality of your life too.
Feeling judged or criticized by others can, of course, negatively affect your mental health. Facing hardships at work or school due to others' prejudices can be distracting. Unfair treatment from institutions is probably the most frustrating; that can make anyone feel hopeless.
But some things are out of your control, and sometimes the best you can do for now is to strengthen yourself and your support system so that you can face life's challenges, these included. By connecting with people who understand and respect your journey, it can be easier to navigate a world that'll always have critics, jerks and narrow minds.
Chin Up: How To Navigate Stigma in Recovery
Addiction is notoriously difficult to explain to someone who's never been there. Nor are you obliged to do so, especially to people who are being invasive, unless you're comfortable educating others.
Use your best judgment to help you navigate the potential conversations that can arise with people who don't understand addiction or recovery. Some, after all, may have genuine questions or concerns! There are a few ways you can address people who may be out of line in their interactions with you, even if not intentionally:
- Have a respectful conversation.
- Set boundaries with the person.
- Have a strong support system at school, work and home to advocate for you and encourage your self-worth.
- Build and maintain your confidence so that others' thoughts and opinions don't have too much power over your self-esteem.
- Find people and institutions that understand and empower you in your recovery.
- If necessary, report any extreme expressions of stigma, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination at work or school.
As you build yourself up, it will become second nature to advocate for yourself. A strong sense of confidence makes it easier to learn how to identify the right people and places for you. Plenty of companies, schools, support groups and other institutions prioritize honoring and respecting people recovering from addiction.
In cases where stigma and disrespect become hurtful or distracting, it's perfectly fine to report this behavior to the appropriate work or school authority. But if the organization fails to act on your behalf, you should come up with an exit strategy and seek a more supportive environment. This can take time and effort, so having that strong support system behind you is crucial.
Bottom line: You don't have to put up with people who put you down. When you focus on moving forward, others' small opinions and criticisms won't take up space in your head or heart.
Where Do I Get the Confidence?
Confidence can be hard to come by in active addiction, when most people feel like they're flailing. But it can be learned or regained in recovery, and once you have it, it becomes easier to stay strong in the face of both real adversity and everyday BS.
There are a few ways to build and maintain a healthy sense of self. They may not all seem related to stigma, but they're more broadly useful for improving something you can influence—your own attitude:
- Learning something new; challenging yourself mentally and physically
- Taking care of your mind and body with exercise, good sleep, diet and self-care
- Seeking help from a counselor, support group or anyone else in your corner
- Continuing to develop and maintain these healthy and supportive connections
- Practicing self-compassion by setting boundaries and being kind to yourself
- Being present
Boosting your confidence comes with building yourself up. If you know how to maintain a solid foundation, no one will be able to knock you off your stride.
Regardless of how far along you are in your journey out of addiction, you should feel comfortable standing tall, regardless of others' sniping or judgments. You should know you have power. After all, you beat addiction, and they did not.