The Imaginary Stigma of Entering Recovery

by | Aug 31, 2016 | Treatment | 0 comments

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The first time somebody suggests that we may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, we tend to get angry. We don’t like the suggestion that we might not be able to control our substance abuse. When people tell us that addiction is a disease, we might get even angrier. After all, who is anybody else to tell us that we have a disease? We feel confident that, if we had a disease or disability of any kind, we would be able to diagnose ourselves. And even when we reach the point at which we begin questioning our own habits, we hate the idea of seeking treatment. Usually, this is because we imagine that addiction treatment carries a stigma that will color other people’s perceptions of us.

In truth, however, there is no major stigma when it comes to addiction treatment. At least, not entirely. Perhaps some people stigmatize addicts and alcoholics due to various misconceptions about our nature. But many people are much more understanding than we give them credit for. If we really take a step back, we find that most of the stigma exists solely in our heads. Part of this comes from our ego. The rest is nothing but sheer paranoia. We need to learn how to separate reality from the fictional narratives that pervade our minds.

Even if the stigma were as bad as we perceive it to be, that still wouldn’t be a good reason to refrain from bettering ourselves. Our sobriety needs to come first, which means that we need to overcome our negative perceptions regarding addiction treatment. Before we can do this, however, we must first take a closer look at why we have these perceptions in the first place. This is what we intend to do below, concentrating first on ego and second on paranoia. We hope that this will help you to realize the truth—that the stigma really isn’t as bad as we tend to think.

Stigma Imagined by Egomania

Ego causes us to think that we are bigger and more important than we really are. (Vasileios Karafillidis/Shutterstock)

Ego causes us to think that we are bigger and more important than we really are. (Vasileios Karafillidis/Shutterstock)

One of our biggest fears upon first entering treatment is that the experience will somehow tarnish our good name. We believe that, by labeling ourselves as addicts or alcoholics, we are simply inviting people to think less of us. It seems to us that nobody could possibly respect a person who suffers from a substance abuse disorder. In fact, some of us may have even looked down on other addicts while engaging in addictive behaviors ourselves! Why should we expect anybody else to think differently?

There are a couple of problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that we are projecting our own former hypocrisy onto others. We ignored our faults while judging the faults of others, and we expect our friends and family to do the same. If our employers or colleagues discover that we went to treatment, they may approach us differently. Not only is our job security at stake, but our reputation as well. It never occurs to us that other people might be more forgiving than we were. And if hypocrisy was not an issue of ours, we simply assume that we were unique in this sense. We may not have judged others, but we feel that others will almost certainly judge us.

A second problem arises from the assumption that we have a reputation to tarnish. Some of us have legal issues. Others have lost relationships or employment opportunities due to chronic substance abuse. Most of the people who know us would already be aware of these things. If anything, they would probably respect us more for getting help than they ever would have respected us if we continued using. But some of us have a lot of trouble accepting this. We would rather pretend as if our good name is still intact—even if we’ve been dragging our own name through the mud for many years.

Some of us may also perceive addiction treatment to constitute a stigma because, in all honesty, we harbor a lot of pride when it comes to our substance abuse. In some twisted way, we feel as if drugs and alcohol make us better people. The functioning addict or alcoholic may feel as if substance abuse makes them better workers. Some may even feel as if they think more quickly when under the influence. Perhaps we don’t socialize well without a jolt of liquid courage, and we fear the stigma of becoming outsiders again. Whatever the source of our pride, we tend to find one way or another of tying it to our abuse of drugs and alcohol. Life without substance abuse therefore seems bleak and unforgiving. In this case, we do not even worry about the thoughts of others—the stigma is most definitely of our own making.

Stigma Imagined by Paranoia

Paranoia and irrational thinking may cause us to fear stigma to an extreme degree. (vchal/Shutterstock)

Paranoia and irrational thinking may cause us to fear stigma to an extreme degree. (vchal/Shutterstock)

Friends, family, employers and colleagues are not the only people whose opinions we fear. When we think about going to addiction treatment, we practically feel as if we’re about to be branded. On some level, we know this is irrational. It’s not like we expect the treatment center to make us walk around our hometown with a sandwich board that says “I am an addict.” Even so, our fears are such that an outside observer might think that we are afraid of precisely this scenario. This is when our fear of stigma is at its most extreme.

In our attempt to rationalize our paranoia, we imagine ways in which the potential stigma might negatively impact us for the rest of our lives. We tell ourselves that we’ll never be able to get another job. We’ll never be able to go on a date again, because our potential mate just might perform a background check and discover our treatment history. There is no shortage of situations that we can imagine in which our addiction may pop up and prevent us from receiving one opportunity or another. And by this logic, we reason that we cannot—must not—go to treatment.

We once had a patient enter our facilities, bone-white and shaking with a major case of the sweats. At first we thought that his condition was simply the result of detox and withdrawal. When we discovered that this was not the case, we realized that he was deathly terrified. In an effort to ease his mind, we inquired as to the specific nature of his fears. The patient said that he was afraid of sexual assault, or becoming the victim of a race riot. He also told us that he was afraid the other addicts would beat him up and take his lunch money. In his paranoia, he had envisioned treatment patients as violent amalgamations of felonious prison inmates and high school bullies.

These fears were allayed after some time in treatment, but he remained somewhat paranoid. He now knew that addicts and alcoholics were not the dastardly bunch he once envisioned. Nonetheless, he still feared that others would perceive him in the same manner he once perceived other addicts. In other words, he still anticipated that he would leave the treatment center with a stigma attached to his name. The good news is that this was not a recent story—it happened thirteen months ago. Today, that same patient will tell you that he is quite proud of the man he became in sobriety. He no longer harbors paranoid delusions of stigma because now he knows the truth—that as long as he remains sober, there is no stigma to his name. All that matters are his actions today. This is one of the greatest lessons we learn in treatment.

Overcoming Our Perceptions

When we overcome our self-centered fears, we can learn to enjoy life no matter where we are or what we’re doing. (Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock)

When we overcome our self-centered fears, we can learn to enjoy life no matter where we are or what we’re doing. (Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock)

Every single addict or alcoholic harbors the potential to make the same turnaround as the patient referenced above. Overcoming our ego and paranoia proves quite easy once we learn to see their irrational basis. It starts when we begin to see that our perception of stigma is based on little more than pride and fear. When we then realize that this pride and fear is largely unfounded, it follows that our perceptions of stigma are likely quite unreasonable as well. Again, it occurs to us that some people might indeed judge us for going to treatment. But the vast majority of those who truly care about us will respect our decision to seek help.

We shouldn’t feel bad about entering treatment with some reservations. Many other addicts and alcoholics perceive the same imaginary stigma that once frightened us so terribly. But many of these same addicts and alcoholics also undergo the same transformation as the patient referenced above. They learn that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. We are not monsters, nor are we perfect little angels. Addicts and alcoholics are simply people who suffer from a disease that requires a spiritual remedy. In treatment, they learn to work on themselves so that they never fear stigma again. They learn to become better, stronger individuals who are worthy of respect and who are capable of respecting themselves.

It takes some time for us to fully realize that we don’t need to attach a stigma to recovery. Sometimes it happens while we’re still in treatment, although it may take longer. Usually, others will start to see us in a better light long before we realize our own improvements. It is at this point, when we recognize our own spiritual growth, that we forget all about our previous fears of stigma. For now we can simply focus on the positive changes in our lives and work to ensure we grow even more over time. As long as we keep doing the next right thing, we have nothing to fear.

Enter our programs, and you’ll learn that you have no reason to fear any stigma when entering recovery. Not only will you find Amethyst to be a warm and welcoming facility, but you’ll likely discover that you’re well-received upon leaving as well. Contact us today for more information on entering treatment as soon as possible. If you really care about safeguarding your reputation, there’s no time to waste.

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