6 truths to help break the stigmas of addiction

Posted at 8:22 AM, Sep 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-22 13:17:40-04

Addiction does not discriminate. It affects people of every race, age, gender, religion and social class.

In fact, more than 21 million Americans struggle with substance abuse, according to Live Science.

Stigmas about addiction are all too common, and they make change more difficult. 

“The stigma of addiction is just as big a killer as addiction,” said Gary Hees, executive clinical director at Decision Point. “Addiction ‘lives’ in the dark: When people won’t talk about it, acknowledge that it exists or refuse to seek help out of shame, it grows.

“Thinking that addiction is a choice is exactly like saying diabetes is a choice. Like any disease, given the correct circumstances, addiction develops in almost any individual.”

Here are six truths those dealing with addiction should remember as they work toward growth and healing, shown through the story of one family’s journey.

1. Addiction affects everyone
A patient named Zach, who was part of an “all-American” family, was a picture-perfect teenager who was slated to go to college on a baseball scholarship.

“He played sports. He was a high-functioning honors student with good grades,” said his mother, Michelle. His parents couldn't imagine that their son would start using opioids and eventually end up at Decision Point Center rehab — twice.

“Addiction is looked at as a lower-class problem. Or it affects people who grew up with a broken family or suffered a major tragedy,” Zach said. “My experience was nothing of that sort. I had a well-off family; my parents have a great relationship and raised me to be a great man.”

No one thinks they will become an addict. In fact, most people can drink socially and never experience any major issue with substance abuse.

“A lot of people get away with it (drinking and drugs)," Michelle said. "They get through those years. They dabble in it and test themselves with it, then they move on. Then there is the 10 percent that tries drugs and gets addicted. Our son got into trouble but was able to hide it at first.”

Addiction can and does affect every class of person — it shows no boundaries. It’s essential to realize that as part of breaking the negative stereotypes about addicts.

2. Addiction is not a choice
One of the most common misconceptions about addiction is that it is a choice. Many believe that because people choose to drink or abuse drugs, they can just as easily choose to quit at any time.

But, it is a disease.

“We had to educate ourselves about what it all meant. We didn’t understand why he kept going back and using and why it was so difficult to stop,” Michelle said. “There is so much more to it and how it affects the brain.”

Zach had to learn about his own addiction.

“I believe that I have the disease of alcohol and drug addiction," he said. "Even after my mental health issues were resolved, I can’t drink socially.”

Zach spent 90 days at Decision Point Center learning about himself, understanding how substances affect the brain and building new habits and behaviors.

“You need to put yourself in a situation where there is no possible way you could relapse,” he said. Decision Point “is a place that is comfortable," he added. "It’s a place to get away, where I was watched over and could break the habit and the cycle. It started to spark a change in my head. I learned who the true person is underneath the addiction.”

3. Addiction is not cause for shame
Addicts often experience shame. They remove themselves from loved ones.

Family and friends also experience shame as a result of the addict's actions. It’s essential to overcome that stigma and realize it’s OK to ask for help.

At the beginning of her son’s addiction, Michelle said she experienced those emotions.

“You feel real shame and guilt," she said. "You’re trying to figure out, what did we do wrong here? Why is my child now involved in this world?”

While emotions are intense and addiction is full of ups and downs, it’s essential for everyone to work through the guilt and shame and embrace the recovery process together.

“It’s hard — reach out to your friends and let them know what you’re going through,” Michelle said. “Unless you open up and tell people what is going on, they can’t be there to support you.”

It's important to put your pride aside and become vulnerable with yourself and others. Addicts can carry emotional scars that make it difficult to be open and deal with the real issues at hand.

However, vulnerability allows peace and healing to begin in the recovery process.

4. Relapse is not a failure
Relapse is almost inevitable without a support group. Sobriety is taken one day at a time, and each day sober is an accomplishment for the addict and their families.

Zach went to rehab twice, relapsing between, but his mother said she is confident that each “building block and stepping stone” is progress.

“Even if they relapse, they are still building on something,” Michelle said. Alcoholics and drug addicts share similar brain behaviors. They speak a language unknown to non-addicts.

By surrounding themselves with groups of like-minded people, they build a community where love, trust and vulnerability can flourish. Relapse is never far away, even for those with years of sobriety.

However, the disease can be put into remission with the help of multiple resources.

5. You are not alone
There are many resources available for addicts and family members, from Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon to formal treatment facilities.

“Formal rehab provided a community to help (Zach) out,” Michelle said.

She recommends several steps for those experiencing the same situation:

• Attend formal counseling
• Get on the same page with your spouse
• Listen to the professionals
• Work the AA program
• Attend meetings
• Get a sponsor
• Have sober fun
• Be honest and transparent

6. You cannot recover alone
Experience has shown that addicts who try recovery on their own are more prone to failure and relapse.

Success rates dramatically increase when addicts rely on their sober community. To stay sober, it's essential to change your old life, patterns, hobbies and habits.

That may require finding new friends, parting ways with old friends and relying on new resources for fun.

One year later, Zach is sober and finishing his degree at Arizona State University.

“Sober fun is more normal for me now," he said.

He has made good friends at his sober living house and at AA, whom he relies on for his continued success.

The difference between getting sober and staying sober includes relying on that network.

“Today, I am blessed to be sober and an active member of Decision Point Alumni,” Zach said. “From experience of being in recovery for 3 years now, I can truly say that Decision Point was professional in caring and understanding my needs.

"The hardest step for me was admitting to myself that I was an addict and I could no longer use any substances to escape the real world.”

As addiction becomes more prevalent in society, it’s essential to break down the negative stigmas associated with the disease. Struggling with addiction is not a weakness, and neither is asking for help.

Relying on community, participating in honest discussions, seeking professional help and engaging in sober fun all contribute to sobriety.

“To all other parents going through it, you are not alone. There is hope for your child,” Michelle said.

How Zach received care from Decision Point
“Decision Point offered ‘EMDR’ and family therapy which both helped me push through matters in my life that caused me to use drugs and alcohol to cover up," Zach said. 

"'EMDR' is a progressive form of treatment that stimulates both parts of your brain that links to pleasures of drug use and connects them to new, healthier life experiences,” he said. “This allowed me to reprogram my brain to correlate drugs and alcohol to negative and painful experiences I encountered during my addiction.

“The family sessions that were offered were by far the most healing of all the treatment I received,” he said.

Counseling allowed Zach to sit with his family and say things they normally would not say to one another. It helped clear the air and for everyone to move forward.

“To me. family is everything, and without them in my life today, I would not be as successful in my journey as I am,” Zach said. “Today my father, mother, and sister have a healthy relationship, and we have healed as a family over issues about my addiction. 

"Life today is a complete 180 from where I was less than a year ago,” he said.