Breaking The Stigma Of Alcoholism And Addiction From Within

I am a white-passing, middle-aged, professional, able-bodied heterosexual cisgender male. Therefore, I have never suffered at the hands of racism or sexism, implied or declared. I have not been denied a job interview or pulled over by the police haphazardly because of my skin colour, name or gender. I am in a place of privilege, even though the term and the state of that term makes me feel uneasy, a sort of survivor’s guilt I suppose. But it’s the reality.

The same can be said of the stigma of alcoholism and addiction. I am an alcoholic, and drugs do not play a role in my story. Alcoholism is seen as a “respectable” illness, if you will, and I have not suffered at the hands of my alcoholism, implied or declared. Everyone who I have opened up to about my alcoholism has been nothing short of supportive, and often will share a story of a family member or friend who suffers or suffered from it. I will have people come to me for advice. It’s an acceptable disease to have.

So I guess you can say I have it easy, in many ways. So it’s not surprising to say that I have a hard time understanding, but completely believing in, the stigma that let’s say, an aboriginal, trans, disabled addict would run into daily. They would be writing a completely different post here. And I would love to read it. I don’t have the experience that they would have.

We hear about the stigma that addiction has in our culture. A few years ago I went to the Unite to Face Addiction rally in Washington. It was eye opening in that the prominent stigma that was spoken about was that of heroin, and to a smaller extent, any other opioid-based drugs. Very little had to do with alcohol. And that’s because alcoholism is mainstreamed, in many ways. It’s a destructive, insidious and powerful force, and kills but it’s still mainstream. Between 88,000 and 2.5 millions Americans have died from alcoholism and alcoholism-related deaths between 2006-2010.

Addiction is a different beast in terms of perception. Drug addicts are seen as degenerates, thugs, whores, scum and other horrid terms. Depersonalization is the name of the game to distance people from the plight of those addicted to drugs. Things are changing a bit these days, as middle America (and middle Canada) are being ravaged as housewives, grandparents, coaches, baristas and other “respectable” folks are dying with needles in their arms, or bottles of pills in their hands. Prescription pills, from the local pharmacy where you run into Judy from the PTA club every Wednesday, prescribed by your friendly Wilford Brimley-like doctor, are killing people. Opium is opium. But we still hold the stigma of that punk in the alley way, shooting up behind a dumpster. But what’s worse than these sweeping generalizations is that even we in the recovery community perpetuate these myths.

The stigma that alcoholics and addicts push onto one another is one that angers and saddens me. I have seen this in the rooms and online. I have been guilty of it myself, something that I am not proud of. We see the man or woman who is always relapsing, and we tend to tire of them. They are relegated to third class, as we focus all our attention on the new shiny newcomer. We start to look at the relapser as a hopeless case. We stop caring about them as much. And that is more damaging than any stigma that a non-alcoholic or non-addict can dish out. I recall someone in a meeting being horrified when they witnessed someone coming into the room drunk. If an active alcoholic can’t be welcomed to a 12-step meeting while they are at their worst, then where would they ever be welcome? It’s like making fun of an overweight person at the gym, or a homeless person in line at the job clinic. Where would you have these folks be that would make you comfortable?

We tend to compare where we are to where others are. Some of us may be a stay-at-home mothers who drank too much Chenin Blanc after the children went to bed, but we are not much different than the man chugging mouthwash by the ravine. The only difference is the circumstances. Some of us slide down the scale a little (or a lot) further, but essentially we are driven by the same things – fears, resentments, low self-worth, etc. I think every alcoholic and addict out there has at some point in their drinking / using days has compared themselves to someone else and said “well, at least I am not bad as they are”. In many instances, this justified and fortified our drinking / using. We compare ourselves to those who we feel are really out of sorts. I am sure that many times I was the one held up as the lower end of the spectrum. We never know.

I used to be frightened when I went to meetings in certain areas of town. I would see a lot of homeless folks, or ex-cons or people who didn’t “look” like me. I would try to sit away from them. The guys with wet brain, or ones who hadn’t bathed in a while, or who were off their medications and acting odd. What could I possibly have in common with them? I would also go to meetings where people arrived in BMW’s and Porches and who wore outfits that cost more than my own car. I felt that I never fit in there either. What I was doing was inflicting my own form of self-righteousness on all these people. I was stigmatizing them based on a cursory and ill-informed view of myself and the world. I was placing judgment on them. Aren’t these the very same things that all those people in Washington were trying to call attention to? So how much better was I, some dude in recovery no less, than the so-called “ignorant normies” out there? Oh, and aren’t I judging them by using those terms in the quotation marks too?

The journey of breaking stigma has to come from within the community itself first. It starts with us. It starts with not judging people on their mode of recovery, whether they are in 12 step or not. It starts with us not comparing how “bad” others went down compared to our high bottoms. It starts with how we treat one another no matter how many times someone has relapsed or struggles. It starts with how we hold each other up rather than tear one another down because of cosmetic differences. It starts with us valuing each other as recovery advocates rather than liabilities based on different agendas or perceptions.

I need to remember this. I can fall into a level of spiritual or recovery superiority. I can forget what it’s like to be caught in the throes of active alcoholism / addiction. I can find myself being dismissive of someone who genuinely needs help. I can get wrapped up in me. And sitting smugly on my throne of supremacy, it’s easy to toss jabs and aggressive comments to those who aren’t doing recovery my way. And it’s that kind of thinking that tends to tear apart the recovery community.

The antidote to all of this is acceptance and love. It sounds hokey but it really is the answer. I gave up trying to uphold my ideas of what recovery is, and just celebrate those who are doing it, and who are happy, joyous and free. I care not for how someone comes to a place of healing where alcohol and/or drugs are no longer needed. What I care about is that they made it. One less coffin to lower into the ground. One less powder keg to destroy a family. How they got there is none of my business. The important this is that they made it.

The recovery community is a fantastic and supportive place. I find refuge in it, even with 6+ years of sobriety. I lean on the community differently than I did as a newcomer, and as the years pass I find those people to be more and more important to me. The last thing we need in this community is division based on ego and pride. If stigma is to really be addressed, we need to take a look in the collective mirror and see where we can make changes, where we can be more kind and loving to not only the alcoholic / addict who still suffers, but to those who have succeeded an continue down the path of wellness, and not undermine one another.

It begins with us.


39 Comments Add yours

  1. I lied. I read this right away, and oh how glad I am that I did. Such honesty and truth! For example:

    “We see the man or woman who is always relapsing, and we tend to tire of them. They are relegated to third class, as we focus all our attention on the new shiny newcomer. We start to look at the relapser as a hopeless case. We stop caring about them as much. And that is more damaging than any stigma that a non-alcoholic or non-addict can dish out.”

    Oh my. Been there. On both sides. The difficulty I believe lies in the fact that we are afraid of the “other.” Stigma has its roots in fear. And fear leads to loathing; loathing leads to resentments and ultimately hurts us more. My challenge now is even GETTING to meetings. I’m sick of them. I’m sick of other people’s faces and listening to their issues. I’m quite selfish and I don’t want to confront that selfishness, because it’s so much easier to sit at home and work, take care of “life”, and stare at a screen from the comfort of my little loveseat I melt in everyday to write and surf.

    I believe the online community is ultimately a good one. But it can lead to isolation, too. I’m afraid of other people, what they might think of me, putting on a mask that it is different than the real me. The real me is needy, judgmental, selfish, and dare I say loathe-worthy myself. I know that I’m also caring, considerate, kind, and put enormous effort forth for others that need help. That’s the human condition and is well defined in a book I recently read “Sapiens,” which looks at the history of humanity and how we got to where we did today.

    I believe you said it best: “The last thing we need in this community is division based on ego and pride.”

    Division is natural to human beings. Fortunately, so is community, tolerance, understanding and wholeness.

    Your writing inspires me greatly, Paul!! – Danno

    1. Paul S says:

      You hit some real issues here, Dan, and I am almost jealous that I wasn’t able to express those in the post! But you are right about fear, and also the idea of not wanting to face certain things. I am certainly in line with you about meetings. Been ages since I have been to one, and what you says strikes me in the gut – am I afraid to leave my little bubble here? Probably. I can make excuses, but there is something there. It’s fluid, and it’s something I need to explore.

      Your response is wonderful Dan, and I am glad that you’re the first to comment, so people can dovetail right into the good insight you offer as an addendum.

      Love to ya,

  2. Hi Paul,
    This is so true. What a great post. Addicts still get shamed more than alcoholics, and it does begin with us. I used to think the same way, until I started volunteering at a place where I have met many drug addicts, and guess what? They are people too. In pain, just like me. In our AA meeting we have alcoholics, and drug addicts and all are welcomed. Which makes me happy.

    1. Paul S says:

      Thank you so much, Wendy. They are people too – such a simple yet profound thing. We tend to forget that, even in our community. But I see it in the eyes of those I pass by in the streets, who suffer. I sometimes stop and talk to them. They’re no different than me. They really aren’t. I am so glad that you are volunteering.


  3. WORD! I fucking love you Paul.

    Major dental work I was awaiting, pain has been bad. Dentist knew I got anxious bad, had to tell her so she could equate my behaviour to that. and not worry that I might turn aggressive. Or that I was using(usually the first assumution) , connotations all over the place.

    I had to ring and cancel appointment due to The Probation order slapped on our home, causing Mags to attempt an overdose. They were nice, rescheduled for week later. The traumatic state of Mags mind caused her to try again. So I had to ring and of course told the truth, please forgive me, it was short notice but they were great.

    went to dentist yesterday, very strange vibe from staff, talked to me like I was hard of hearing. In between xray, the condition of my teeth was firmly laid at feet of method one. again and again. I had done nothing wrong they asked me to seek another dental practice, I had flippant comments from couple of staff . because of substance misuse or mental health issues, I was told I had abused the system. It left me feeling shit, Claymore(my subcon) turns the hands of our Recovaggedion clock to the position of 3 mins to Midnight. We take our seats and the only sound is voluminous Tick Tock, Shock to Shock.

    Your self esteem lies on the floor with a chalk mark around it.

    Recovernomicon Age

    1. Paul S says:

      Johnny boy! Love that you’re here. The minute I read that first line this I knew it was you. You’re a blessing, brother.
      Hey – so sorry to hear about Mags – she okay now? That’s a terrible thing. Is she safe now?
      And also about your dentist – not cool how they handled that. A little empathy could help, yes? You told them that you get anxious. Is there anything that helps you when you get like that? Some technique to calm you? going to the dentist causes pretty much everyone else anxiety. It’s not pleasant. But you’re a good man, you don’t abuse the system. I know you’re not like that.

      Don’t let the bastards take you down, brother! You have rights to health and wellness like everyone else!

      Big hugs and love to you and Mags.


  4. Rothschild says:

    The devil is in the details. We choose our poison and we get judged on the poison we choose rather than why we have chosen to poison. If one’s particular poison is sugar that is not good for one. but one cannot help but continue to have some; but they are no better than the junkie, except society assumes popular and/or legal poison is taken to self-soothe while the other is taken to self-harm. Unfair. You are right in that it begins with us. We need to educate our mind to control our emotions. It is not food, drink or even alcohol that we crave – what we crave is not edible. When we learn ‘that’ we must believe that, and if we believe that – we can control our emotions to act appropriately.

    1. Paul S says:

      “What we crave is not edible” – THIS. That is brilliant. I love it. And you are right. You mention sugar, and that is something I too struggle with, and am powerless over in many ways. It’s all interlaced with emotion and brain triggers and all that jazz. We self-medicate, we try to soothe ourselves, and eventually the solution to our problems becomes yet another problem that piles up. It turns on us.
      Thank you for this – wonderful. So thankful for your comments.


      1. Rothschild says:

        You are very welcome Paul. Stay blessed 🙂

  5. Robert McClellan says:

    Reblogged this on Real Sobriety and commented:
    From my friend Paul, an insightful take on the “stigma” of addiction.

  6. Robert McClellan says:

    So true and so timely! I remember my early sponsor taking me with him on Sunday afternoons to a meeting at a men’s homeless shelter. I was guilty of feeling somehow superior because I never became homeless as a result of my addiction. It took a while, but eventually that superiority melted to humility and gratitude, and I hope, usefulness.
    Paul, you are a talented and brave writer!

    1. Paul S says:

      Hey Robert – thank you so much for this (and the repost!) I have been to detox centers and had the same feelings you had, and then at some point in the meeting, that sort of melted away, and later, as I was literally stepping over guys passed out on the stairs, I was overcome with gratitude. Not in a “better you than me” way, but that we could do this together.


  7. ainsobriety says:

    I agree.
    Love is always the answer. The only answer.
    No matter how much we want to criticize, shame, bully or force someone to be as we want them to be (including ourselves) it never works.
    Kind and gentle. We truly are all the same inside. We all just want a little stillness and peace.

    Lovely post. Lovely.

    1. Paul S says:

      thank you Anne. I appreciate it. And yes, stillness and peace…that is all I ever really wanted. The drama of my past life seems like a nightmare now. Thank goodness we’re here on a different path.


  8. bgddyjim says:

    What is white-passing?

    1. bgddyjim says:

      Oh, sweet baby Jesus, I’m sorry I asked. Never mind.

    2. an individual of darker skin or a native, but can live without the fear of a race hate event, while living amongst a majority of crac….. white folk etc

      1. bgddyjim says:

        Now THAT’S funny! Thanks for the clarification. I find it humorous and interesting how one-sided that conversation gets.

  9. bgddyjim says:

    Okay. Let’s get to the meat and potatoes, because I don’t do all of that cisgender hoohah. It’s none of my business what you or anyone else thinks about me. That is freedom, and it’s sexy. I won’t be tied to anyone’s labels, though you’re free to wear those chains as you choose.

    I find your premise, while it attempts to be noble, flat. You wrote, “It’s like making fun of an overweight person at the gym, or a homeless person in line at the job clinic.” In terms of comparison to the alcoholic or addict who continually relapses.

    That’s not quite right… It would be like looking at a fat person in a gym, in his spandex, munching on a Big Mac rather than pushing weights and saying, “I don’t think you’re doing this right.” Or the homeless man in line at the job bank who says, “I’m holding out for the six-figure management position.” Again, probably not doing this correctly.

    The alcoholic or addict who simply isn’t done yet, is covered in the Big Book, and very clearly. We know we couldn’t be helped until we were done and until we became willing to stay out of the barber shop as it were.

    I worked with someone who is a very good friend of mine today, and is sober (five or six years now). He relapsed for YEARS under my tutelage. The last time he came back, he asked me to sponsor him again.

    This time I suggested he find someone else to sponsor him. I told him that every nut has a wrench in this program and if I can’t do right by you by helping you to actually remain sober, I am holding you back from meeting your wrench.

    Your whole premise has too much “you” in it, Paul. That said, I still dig you, bro. You and your cisgender, heteronormative self. Chuckle.

    1. Paul S says:

      Thanks for this Jim. Yeah, I’m no journalist, so this certainly has “me” stamped all over it. I guess I don’t know any other way of expressing things. But I hear you, and you make strong points. I guess I am trying to reach for something bigger, and maybe it is flat. But I wanted to just get it out there, as imperfect as it may be. And maybe this blog post isn’t the nut for some, but may be for others. Meh. It’s all good, brother. Thanks for still passing by and I always look forward to your thoughts!

      1. bgddyjim says:

        Definitely not my wrench, I’m the nut in that equation.

        My point was simply that we don’t have to knock ourselves down to the level of the still using or oft-relapsing addict/alcoholic by embracing a bunch of new-aged labels. Someone else’s recovery isn’t about you at all, it’s about their ability to be honest and embrace a simple program of recovery.

        If I can’t help someone to do that, it’s not me…. they need a better wrench.

        One thing is for sure though, brother…. you sure got me thinking today, and for that I am grateful. Thanks, brother.

        1. Paul S says:

          That’s great, Jim. This is the stuff I like – good, healthy discussions. I do agree about what you say, about honesty. Without honesty, we’re full of our own shit and we’re not going down any healthy sobriety. BB lays this out over and over again. I have moved sponsors over the years, because my needs have changed, or they have. Sponsees have left me as well, and that’s okay. Nothing personal. And that’s the beauty of this – it’s nothing personal. At least I try not to make it that way.

          Thanks again for this. I am glad we’ve crossed paths.

          On a lighter note, been biking lately, and that often has be thinking about you and just how much it’s a part of your life. I am grateful that it’s the only exercise I can manage with this sciatica and you have inspired me many times to turn to my bike when I need to clear my head.


          1. bgddyjim says:

            Awesome Paul, you know how good it feels to be useful to someone else.

            I’m on my way out the door myself, in nine minutes. I’m interested on how cycling works with sciatica…. I’d never have guessed they were compatible!

        2. your words are kinda the point. your saying, your better than some one else. its sounds aggressive. maybe your pissed off because yr dog died. my dog died too. bad

          1. bgddyjim says:

            Or possibly I’m an English teacher.

  10. Love it Paul, as always!
    It is unfortunately human nature to be judgmental- or is it – or is it ego – or is it taught? No clue, but I do know that we all do it! As a person in long term recovery that had relapsed I have faced a whole new stigma and judgement – sort of like the “serial relapser” – because there must have been a number of things that I failed to do, and I must have not done it right, and I must have not followed the program or prayed enough, or whatever. Having a PTSD episode, going thru a horrible divorce and just wanting the pain to go away, is not a valid reason apparently, nor is addiction itself. I watched some walk away from me like I was the poison now. It is a very bizarre feeling that made me push myself inward and fall into real deep shame that I am just crawling out off.

    I am determined to live in recovery so I REALLY had to push thru it and inevitably find a whole new group of people to support me.
    You know, it is what it is – though I wish it wasn’t. I certainly feel like I have no place to judge but there are times that I still do… it is definitely in continues progress and awareness that I really have no clue when I judge someone and I better let that ego trip go because it does no one any good!

    Thanks Paul! Sending Hugs!

  11. I can relate to this on so many levels, especially as it relates to that kind of “us and them” mentality. When I was first introduced to the concept of recovery, it wasn’t tied specifically to addiction at all but to the process of recovering from a whole litany of mental health issues that so many of us face. I have never met anyone who didn’t have something to recover from.

    1. I just realized that my last sentence didn’t show up. It was: Imagine if we always treated each other that way.

      1. Paul S says:

        Thanks for all this, Karen. I really appreciate it (sorry for the late response!) As you wisely mention, we all have something we are “recovering” from. I am far from perfect. Thanks again for the read – always a pleasure seeing you!

  12. I believe in the concept that what you judge about someone else is what you fear about yourself. So really, we are always judging ourselves. What I loathe or fear in myself, I will project onto other people, and then look at them, and say, “At least I’m not that bad.” Catching myself in the thought is challenging because it’s so automatic. When I find myself having fearful thoughts, than I judge people accordingly. When I’m open to the world, I find myself honoring and connecting with people more easily.
    Wow, I feel like I should send you a check for this self-therapy, Paul. Thanks for another insightful post! 💕

    1. Paul S says:

      ha ha, thank YOU for this and my apologies for the delayed response. I think what you say makes sense…we certainly do play that game of “you spot it, you got it”. And I know that when someone really irritates me, for some reason, well there is a reason – usually it’s because there is something about them that I recognize in myself and I don’t like that thing. Sometimes I blame it on something else, but most of the time it’s that. Thank you for the wonderful comments!

  13. Elizabeth says:

    “I am not what you say I am. You are what you say I am.” I read this somewhere recently. Very true. Great conversation going on here. Thank you for this wonderfully thought provoking post.

    1. Paul S says:

      Thank YOU Elizabeth for the read and comments. I am glad you are on the journey with me 🙂

  14. Hey Paul–this was a really well thought out post. I’ve had similar struggles with the notion of stigma–as an addict, part of the larger stigma, but as a white male, given love and support to combat the disease, not maximum minimum sentencing.

    You’re writing is such a great reflection of who you are as a person. It is a beautiful thing. Honesty provides a crystal clear reflection. This one, maybe even the most of all I have read, is so blistering honest that it rings like a hammer.

    I’m blown away with this post bud. Because of how insightful the reading of it was (Elizabeth stole the quote I was going to quote–that is a brilliant conclusion my friend–and so effen true). I’ve had similar debates in my head and had to give up, or just blame it on racism like I did for an article in the fix. But one thing that is true on all you’re writing, you never settle.

    I admire that tremendously. And I’m honored and blessed to call you my friend.

    1. Elizabeth says:

      Sorry for the “steal” Mark- you probably would’ve done better. After giving it more thought, I believe it was actually-” I am not who you think I am. You are who you think I am.” Even more damaging is what remains unspoken. Grows even uglier in the dark.

      1. Liz – you did it justice in ways I never could. Thanks for your thoughts, input, wisdom, and support.

    2. Paul S says:

      Hey Mark – I read this when you first dropped – my apologies in getting back to you so late.
      I appreciate the thoughts about honesty. People often say that about me in real life and in my writing, but I guess it’s payback to the universe for all the subterfuge and deception I practiced for most of my life.
      Thanks for the kind words, as well. I think what Elizabeth and you talk about is true, even when it’s me on the pointing side of things. I like to blame others or pin the tail on the donkey when it’s I who is the ass. I have been guilty of many a mental misdemeanor and I guess I just want to out myself.

      Blessings to you man, and glad you got away for the weekend. I am going to hop onto your latest work. I know it will be a gem, as usual.


  15. Mrs. S says:

    Lovely post and so true. I have suffered very little judgement when I look back at my life. Even now, while actively trying to recover from alcohol issues I find that others tell me “but you just aren’t that bad”. Its easy to fall into believing it. And then I see the homeless man who sleeps on a bench where I walk my dog daily and I remember I am exactly like him. The stigma issue, I feel, goes down to part of what landed me in the rooms in the first place- self-judgement and self-persecution. I used everyone else as my marker for myself. Its a human trait to compare ourselves to others, but the addict tends to then crack open a bottle of wine to drown out the negative issue you may notice in the comparison. I agree that the recovery community- with all of its wonderful different forms- is where the change must start. Like starting to change yourself before you can change the world, we as a community must embrace each other, good, bad, and other, and only then will the world realize we are the new way forward. We are the love that will create love and acceptance.

    1. Paul S says:

      Mrs S- can I just say that I LOVE what you said here, and I was just nodding my head saying “yes, yes, yes!” You nail it all and I am so thankful for the addendum to what I wrote. You really nailed a lot of what I was thinking, and yes, you are also right about the self-judgement and self-persecution. I can still do that, and as far as comparing myself to others? Let’s just say I have a PhD and working on my Masters. I still struggle with that, but working on trying to curb it.
      Thank you for being a shining light with this. I really appreciate you and your comments.


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