Recovery from addiction: Stigma and many obstacles, but no excuses!

Many of the people in my life nowadays forget that I’m an ex-convict. Still, I get daily reminders that the “ex” part of convict doesn’t carry much weight. I also know that I have it easy because I have a Ph.D. after my name. For many others in recovery, things are even harder.

Still, when filling out job applications, considering possibilities for the future, or trying to start anything new, my past convictions are ready to jump out as the first hurdles.

Stigmatization after recovery from addiction

My first encounter with this sort of stigmatization came at my first job search after I got out of jail in 2003. I was applying for an Apple Store job and did well. Even though I told them that I’d been arrested on the job application, I got a second interview. Then the coveted email letting me know I was to report for training next week. Only the background check remained. But that final email never came. I never heard from Apple again and none of my emails and phone calls were ever returned. I can only assume that they found out that my arrest resulted in 9 felony convictions and decide to “pass.”

When I started at UCLA (no questions about felonies on school applications), I tried to volunteer at the Los Angeles Big Brothers and Sisters organization. I was rejected as soon as the background check was completed. People wouldn’t even let me volunteer and I had been drug free for over 3 years and attending a doctoral program at UCLA… It was frustrating to say the least

Being licensed is probably also going to be an issue if I want to become a clinical psychologist in the future. It was one of the reasons I didn’t try to go to medical school or law school. The hassle of having to fight for the right to work in my chosen field wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Apparently though while I wasn’t quite ready for the fight then, fighting addiction stigma is something I feel strongly about now. Between our “Anonymous No More” campaign and my efforts on and off the website, I think we’re going to be able to slowly move public opinion away from either the notion that drug use in itself is a terrible thing or that addicts are lepers and should be kept at a distance.

Recovery success, there is a life after addiction

Still, I am constantly reminded that success follows perseverance. When I’m told “No”, I feel disappointed, but I pick my head up as soon as possible (my great fiance often helps) and try to figure out another way in. That was true when I first set on my path and its true today. I’m proud of my achievements and by now, more than eight years after the last time I used crystal meth, they are many.

I know my worth, I believe in my purpose, and I’m not going to let anyone else hold me back. Yes I have nine felonies and I used to sell drugs for a living. But I’m done with that and I’m trying to do the best that I can.

I think my recovery is pretty damn good – I’ve got All About Addiction that is visited by thousands of people a week, more than a dozen publications and articles about addiction in professional and popular journals, and I’ve spoken at literally hundreds of sessions, classes, and conferences about addiction and the problems associated with it. If you believe in yourself, you need to think the same of your own work. Stay on the right path. Don’t let anyone stop you.

Addiction stigma – Making addiction recovery, and addiction treatment entry, even harder

When people think about drug addicts, they often bring-up the negative stereotypical hippie, or homeless, image that movies, television, and much of our daily experience has left us with. Its usually not a successful business man, doctor, or lawyer that comes to mind.

This is an issue because many addicts attempt to disassociate themselves from this negative stigma, often resorting to denial of their drug problem or secrecy coping,  and not seeking the addiction treatment they need.

The truth is that addicts are found in every socioeconomic class and within every ethnic group and gender. On this site we have talked about doctors with addictions, the reality of behavioral addictions, and the science behind the compulsive behavior that addicts are so well known for. We have attempted to destroy myths about addictions, by informing our readers about the neuroscience of addiction, and allowing people “to come out” about their addictions. By doing this we hope to encourage openness about addictions, and not allow stigma to get in in the way of recovery.

Addiction stigma hurts addiction treatment success

The center for Addictions and Substance Abuse Technologies, at The University of Nevada, did a study on the affects of stigmatization on 197 drug users. The findings indicated that there is a direct correlation between the degree to which drug users are perceived negatively (stigmatized) and whether or not they overcome their addiction. The study suggested that addicts become more dependent on the substance they use because of the stigma (actual or perceived).

Researchers looked at six questions regarding stigmatization which were:

  1. To what degree do drug users experience stigma?
  2. Were the metrics of stigmatization conceptually distinct?
  3. Is the perceived stigma related to the number of previous addiction treatment episodes?
  4. How does secrecy as a coping strategy affect drug users?
  5. Do intravenous drug users have higher levels of perceived stigma than non-intravenous users?
  6. Do people with current contact with the legal system report higher levels of stigma?

The study found that there are varying degrees of stigmatization and that the most prevalent stigmas were; drug users felt that people treated them differently after finding out about their drug use (60%), felt that others were afraid of them when finding out about their drug use (46%), felt some of their family gave up on them after finding out about their substance use (45%),  felt that some of their friends rejected them after finding out about their substance use (38%), and felt that employers paid them a lower wages after finding out about their substance use (14%). My own personal experience certainly supports the first three findings – I have encountered people who stopped talking to me after finding out about my drug addiction past, and during my addiction there were long stretches of time during which my family completely gave up on the possibility that I would ever recover. At the time I simply shrugged these things off and pretended like they didn’t matter, but they certainly didn’t give me a good reason to stop using drugs.

The results of the study indicated that the measures of stigma are conceptually unique. These measures included Internalized shame Perceived stigma, and stigma-related rejection, all of which were correlated with one another to some extent.

Users with a higher number of addiction treatment episodes also engendered higher levels of stigma and had a more difficult time succeeding in treatment. These results  support earlier findings (Sirey et al. 2001) that showed that users with higher levels of perceived stigma were more likely to prematurely discontinue treatment, confirming that stigmatized drug users are not likely to seek addiction treatment and are more likely to relapse after starting treatment.

Addicts have a sense of shame associated with seeking treatment for their problem

The current addiction treatment system has produced a seeming paradox within the mind of the struggling addict – By owning up to their addictions, addicts reduce the invisibility of the problem, helping others claim back their lives from the secrecy of substance abuse and behavioral addictions. Unfortunately, that process takes far longer than the stigma the confessing addict has to immediately confront.

The study showed that secrecy coping is associated with lower quality of life because of the drug user’s inability to openly discuss their addiction. Subjects  that dealt with their addiction alone had poorer mental health, decreasing their chances of recover due to the stigma of addiction. Much like with many other chronic mental, and physical, conditions, the stigma attached to addiction, and addiction treatment seeking, can often lead to poorer outcomes in the long run and less successful treatment development due to low participation rates in the kind of groundbreaking research necessary. By reducing the shame associated with confessing to an addiction, society could drive forward the advancement of addiction treatment, helping us treat addiction like we treat cancer, parkinson’s disease, and many other chronic diseases.

Surprisingly the results from the study showed that the legal system does not increase the  level of stigmatization, yet subjects that used intravenous drugs felt a higher level of stigma.

Citations:

Sirey, J. A., Bruce, M. L., Alxopoulos, G. S., Perlick, D., Raue, P., Friedman, S. J., et al. (2001). Perceived stigma as a predictor oftreatment discontinuation in young and older outpatients with depression. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158, 479−481.

Luoma J.B., Twohig M.P., Waltz T., Hayes S.C., Roget N., Padilla M., Fisher G. (2007) An investigation of stigma in individuals receiving treatment for substance abuse.