I was glad to read David Colman’s recent New York Times article, “Challenging the Second ‘A’ in A.A.” Colman makes many valid points; he highlights the pitfalls of anonymity, applauds public recovery role models (the “quitterati”), and criticizes the barriers created by stigma. But he fails to differentiate between two very different types of stigma: that which stigmatizes addiction, and that which stigmatizes treatment and recovery.
“What we need to do,” explains Tom McLellan, Ph.D., former Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, “is to move stigma from the person who is addicted to people who are addicted and doing nothing about it.” A little bit of stigma surrounding drugs and addiction can be a good thing—it can motivate people to get better. Look at what happened with tobacco; since educational campaigns began pinpointing cigarettes as a personal and public health hazard, we have noticed a significant drop in tobacco consumption. Many individuals, especially young people, decide to abstain from drug use because of this very stigma.
The stigma that the article is discussing, on the other hand, is the unnecessary shame that surrounds addiction treatment and recovery—what Colman calls “an anachronistic vestige of the Great Depression,” when alcoholism was seen as both a weakness and a disgrace. It’s based on the antiquated and inaccurate concept of addiction as a personal moral failure that can one can never completely overcome. Today, we know that addiction is a disease, and that seeking treatment is anything but disgraceful. The next step is to share and advocate this message so it can reach those who are still ashamed to get the help they need and deserve. This is where anonymity can become a hindrance.
Prominent men and women, from rock stars to politicians, receive tremendous positive support when they come clean and share their recovery stories. The public is applauding Steven Tyler’s recent self-affirmation (“Sober, I can do anything”) while commending Whitney Houston for returning to treatment. Non-celebrities in recovery should receive the same encouragement from their families and workplaces. By sharing their stories of recovery, they build hope for friends, family, colleagues and others who need to know that treatment works. How can this hope be transferred if you’re hiding behind anonymity? How can others support you if they are unaware of your struggles?
Of the millions of people in recovery, few talk about it. The brave individuals who do speak up about their recovery journeys are taking important steps to remove this stigma. They are living proof that treatment does work, and that addiction isn’t hopeless.
Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO