The Shame and The Stigma

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Nobody ever intends to become addicted to some mind-altering substance. Despite knowing just how slippery a slope substance abuse can be, many individuals will begin experimenting with recreational intoxication at some point, believing that they will be able to enjoy alcohol and drugs while making sure they don’t reach the point of addiction. For some of those individuals, substance abuse is a short, passing phase such as for many college students. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Some of those who begin experimenting with substance abuse will knowingly begin to escalate their substance abuse behavior. The goal is not to become addicted, but rather is simply due to their enjoying the feeling they get from misusing and abusing these substances and wanting to experience that first intense intoxication again and again. As the substance abuse behavior becomes more frequent and the amount of substance one consumes increases, a substance abuser’s body must adapt to being constantly bombarded with substances that alter the body’s natural functioning. As a result, the individual’s body has become dependent on his or her substance abuse to function on even a normal level.

The process of evolving from a substance abuser to an addict happens very subtly, and most people don’t realize they’ve become addicted until the first time they begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms. However, at this point it’s too late to simply stop consuming alcohol or drugs. Not only will the person feel immense discomfort without his or her substance of choice, but the point of becoming physically dependent on alcohol and drugs means that the individual has developed the disease of addiction.

Conceptualizing addiction as disease and disorder

Although it may seem to be a behavioral affliction, addiction is actually a disease that could be compared to other diseases such as cancer or diabetes. When addiction develops, it can’t simply be cured like a common cold or easily unlearned. In particular, addiction has been defined as a chronic and progressive brain disease due to the effects that a substance abuse problem has on the brain. A person who becomes addicted to alcohol, drugs, or even harmful behaviors will experience certain neurological anomalies that are typical only of individuals who have become addicts. Specifically, an addict’s brain exhibits abnormal structural changes and altered, less effective functioning.

However, there’s more to addiction than the disease aspect. When a person considers the effects of addiction and the symptoms that make up the disease, he or she will notice that the disease is neither physical nor behavioral, but rather a combination of both. The physical components of addiction are what classify it as disease, but the behavioral components also make it a disorder. In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently in its recently revised fifth edition, includes substance use disorder as the behavioral analogue of the disease of addiction. According to the DSM-5, an individual is suffering from a substance use disorder if they exhibit at least six of the eleven diagnostic criteria, which includes taking a substance in larger amounts or for longer than one needs to, desiring to decrease or cease substance use while not being able to, spending a significant amount of time either getting and using or recovering from using a substance, experiencing cravings for a substance, having one’s performance suffer at work or school and at home, and continuing to use even when one’s use is causing problems in relationships.

Shame and internalized judgement among addicts

Addiction might be a disease and a behavioral disorder, but it’s still very poorly understood. The average person still continues to see addiction as an addict’s conscious choice to abuse alcohol or drugs. Even addicts themselves often have a poor understanding of the disease from which they suffer, resulting in their having some rather complicated and self-critical feelings about their chemical dependencies.

An addict’s family members, friends, and other loved ones might wonder whether the individual feels guilt for any of his or her behaviors over the course of active addiction. After all, it’s very common for addicts to take advantage of their loved ones in order to sustain their substance abuse habits. In many cases, an addict’s guilt won’t be readily apparent, and this is interpreted as being a lack of guilt. In reality, addicts often feel shame rather than guilt. The primary difference between guilt and shame is that guilt refers to a judgement of whether one’s behavior was right or wrong while shame is an individual’s negative opinion about himself or herself. Shame is much more common among addicts than guilt, especially since they’re often avoidant of those they have wronged and find themselves frequently alone, reflecting on the things that they’ve done. Unfortunately, shame is a very strong motivator for additional substance abuse.

Addicts widely stigmatized for their disease

Not only are addicts looking down on and shaming themselves for their addictions, but they’re also being stigmatized by society. This essentially means that addicts are the objects of negativity both from within and from without. However, while substance abuse can be used to subdue an addict’s feelings of shame, it’s much more difficult for an addict to escape societal stigmatization. The sad reality is that despite the prevalence of the disease model of addiction, most people still see addicts as being self-serving individuals who knowingly bring the problems they experience onto themselves. It’s also a common public opinion that an addict is able to stop their substance abuse at anytime they wanted, but they remain in active addiction by choice. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Why addicts deserve empathy rather than judgement

While in the throes of active addiction, an addict may make a number of bad choices that bring harm to their loved ones and others, but they’re still deserving of sympathy. The beak reality is that upon becoming addicted, addicts are largely unable to control their behaviors in much the same way as someone with schizophrenia is unable to stop experiencing hallucinations. After becoming an addict, substance abuse is a behavioral compulsion to which they have very little to no control. It’s important to refrain from shaming and stigmatizing addicts because this only makes them less likely to ask for help, prolonging the amount of time they’re spending in active addiction.

Relief from addiction is a phone call away with Recovery Hub

Addiction is a dangerous disease that too frequently costs individuals their lives. Despite the rather profound transformation a person exhibits after becoming addicted, there are still many resources available to help addicts get their lives back. For a free consultation and assessment, call Recovery Hub today at 888-220-4352. We’re available anytime to answer your questions and help you find the right program for your specific needs.

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