Shaming. We do it to everyone. Fat people. Poor people. Sexually promiscuous people. People of varying genders. People we deem to be of less moral character than ourselves.
But I can think of no one who gets shamed more than substance abusers. And I know, because I’m a recovering alcoholic.
You see, when you “admit” to being an alcoholic, you are merely admitting defeat at the hands of some sort of moral mental beat down. But when you are called an alcoholic by someone else, that person means business.
Moreover, everyone who engages in substance abuse is terrified of being labeled an alcohol or drug addict, and with good reason. If you seek help, you risk coming out and dealing with the stigma. If you don’t seek help, in everyone else’s eyes, that makes you an even worse person.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that children and relatives of alcoholics don’t have a right to be angry. You do. I can relate. My parents were both big drinkers, and I can probably thank them for their part in the development of my habit. But there’s much more to it than that.
I just know its hard to look at the big picture in a micro environment, such as that we experience growing up. But you have to understand, most of us substance abusers don’t want to be selfish or morally deficient. Sometimes it’s just part of our nature – a companion to our addiction.
Most often, we regret that we are not able to be better people for our families. We are in a constant struggle against ourselves and what is better for everyone else.
Moving on, I contend that substance abuse is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and both animals and humans have been engaging in it since the beginning of time.
For example, here’s a great Buzzfeed article about animals that regularly get drunk and high.
No one accuses animals of being of poor moral character. But as humans, we are somehow held to a higher standard. It’s as if our self-awareness makes us immune to certain basic instincts – many of which involve reward mechanisms. Those same reward mechanisms that keep us alive and prospering, by the way.
So maybe – just maybe – our brains have not developed to the point where we can discern between what rewards are good for us, and what rewards are “false” – that is, which ones are not really in our best interests.
Furthermore, I honestly believe that chemical dependency can happen to ANYONE, it’s just a matter of the variables involved. There are many contributing factors, such as family history, genetics, and mental illness. But the bottom line is, when something is addictive, it’s potentially addictive for almost everyone.
I do think that calling addiction a disease is also an over-simplification. True, like a disease, alcoholism and drug addiction can be treated with medication. But most diseases aren’t generally wrought by our mental health, or our own desires and impulses. Only substance abuse really qualifies here.
So in essence, addiction is a multi-faceted, no-one-size-fits-all condition. It’s more than just one thing, one problem, one feeling – it’s a complicated mess of variables than is incredibly difficult to untangle. Even the experts think so. So therefore, how can we justifiably label or judge someone by such simple, disparaging epithets?
Why Judging and Labeling Doesn’t Help
“Empathy’s the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.” ~ Brene Brown
It’s just exhausting listening to people calling the addicted “drunkards” “junkies” and “pill-poppers.” It’s as if they have no other identity. They aren’t people anymore. At least not to the casual observer. Maybe close friends and family can see through to the person they love, but when most people see a stranger in the gutter, they are apt to make some serious assumptions about him or her.
And if you call someone by these names for long enough, they may begin to believe that they really are what they use.
We’ll never be able to move forward as a society until we reach out to help each other instead of holding lofty judgments against others we deem as lesser persons, more flawed, or simply hard to understand. Sometimes, we just need to accept that we can’t wrap our heads around everyone else’s behavior and ideas, or why other people do the things they do.
I look forward to a day when we stop judging others for real or imagined faults that we ourselves don’t have.
It’s terribly easy to point your finger at someone who is just a little worse off than yourself, in your own personal opinion.
Simply put, as Elvis Presley used to say, “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in that man’s shoes.”
Labeling, shaming, and guilting are completely useless activities. These judgmental tactics don’t help anyone, and only serve to make the world a harder place to navigate for everyone.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology