There is a lot of talk about stigma with respect to addiction. Those who promote that addiction is a disease claim that calling it a disease reduces the stigma. Their theory is that reducing the stigma will lead to more people seeking help, but does calling it a disease actually reduce stigma? Substance users (whether heavy users or not) are still prosecuted like criminals if caught with illicit drugs. Treatment programs that promote the addiction disease theory tell families to employ “tough love” when dealing with someone who is using substances. And in many states families can now petition the courts to incarcerate a substance user in treatment even if they’ve broken no laws, simply because their substance use appears to be excessive and harmful to them.
The truth is the stigma associated with addiction will never go away as long as prohibition exists and the addiction disease theory is prominent in our society. The stigma exists because there is a stigma associated with substance use itself. There is a stigma associated with the desire to use substances to alter our mental state, and many people in our country have a serious preoccupation with controlling other people’s lives. There are a plethora of laws on the books at all levels of government that are specifically rooted in morality and designed to save people from themselves.
There is a serious dichotomy within the addiction disease mythology. Substance use (i.e. addiction) is treated like a disease while punished as a crime, and substance users are treated like children. Have you ever thought about the fact that there is no stigma that exists surrounding having an actual disease? People suffering from cancer who undergo aggressive radiation and chemotherapy that makes their appearance change dramatically are never stigmatized. Even those whose cancer may have been directly due to a specific behavior like smoking or substance use aren’t stigmatized, nor are they sanctioned in any way for having cancer. Yet people are sanctioned for having the supposed disease of addiction every single day.
So if calling it a disease does not decrease the stigma, then what actual purpose does it serve? Addiction treatment outcome studies have shown that treatment based on the disease ideology in all its forms is not better than no treatment at helping people to stop their addictions. In spite of tens of millions of dollars spent and nearly a century of research into proving addiction to be a disease, there has been no research that supports that people are afflicted with a disease that makes them powerless over ingesting substances. As a matter of fact, all research has shown the opposite to be true, that people do have the power to stop their addictions.
It appears that the only reason the disease model exists and is perpetuated is it allows people a covert way to control other people’s behaviors under the guise of helping them. Treatment centers and addiction rehabs are nothing more than housing for what our society considers deviants. Treatment professionals state to the public they want to decrease the stigma while the treatment they provide uses guilt, fear and shame to coerce people to change their behavior.
The entire treatment industry and recovery movement perpetuates the stigma by promoting the ideas that those who use substances heavily are out of control, weak-minded, sick and in need of fixing. The entire basis for the addiction treatment system is the 12 step program, Alcoholics Anonymous, which touts that “alcoholics” or “addicts” are powerless, have character defects, are incapable of managing their own lives, and must allow others and God to direct their lives. In treatment substance users must come to believe that they are selfish and sinful and must become more spiritual, and seek a selfless way of life in order to get a “daily reprieve” from their disease. So no, the treatment industry doesn’t reduce stigma, it promotes it. And furthermore it is filled with half-truths, misinformation and outright lies designed to usurp people’s personal power and control them.
The only way to reduce stigma is to change the way we, as a society, view substances. They are not evil or bad, and they have no powers to enslave people. People that use them do so for their own very personal reasons which quite frankly are no one’s business. Yes, there are natural consequences for use, and sometimes a person’s use does affect those in their immediate sphere of influence, but those people have the power to choose what they want for themselves and for that relationship. I don’t get to decide what my spouse chooses to ingest, but I do get to decide what I want for my life, and if that doesn’t include a spouse who is a heavy substance user then I can make my decision accordingly.
What if people started minding their own business? What if each person focused on making their own lives great instead of trying to direct others’ lives? What if we looked at substance use completely differently? What if we began seeing it as a personal preference, and let people make the decision of what to use, how much to use and how often to use for themselves? What if we educated people about what substances have the power to do and not do? And what if we allowed people to speak the truth about their substance use?
People don’t do anything, not one single thing, without their own consent and desire to do it. This is an absolute truth. If you really want to reduce stigma and help people, you have to start with learning and understanding the truth about addiction.