Removing the Stigma

What can be done about addiction?

an inside look at rehab and what we need to move past the stigma of addiction

It’s 8:50 in the morning on a perfectly sunny, late summer day. Sunlight streams into the large classroom through four tall windows, bounces off the smooth surfaces of the wooden tables, and heats the room quickly. The room is decorated in grays and blues, with a tall bookshelf crammed full with books, art supplies, tissues, and odds and ends. Jamie*, a clean cut young guy wearing matching Adidas shirt and shoes, strolls in and takes a seat next to Scott, a 40-something professional in a suit and tie. Scott’s suit jacket is hanging on the back of his chair and his sleeves are already rolled up against the morning heat as he chats animatedly with Donna*, an impeccably dressed stay-at-home mom in her late 40s. David, a thirty year old videographer with a handlebar mustache, brings in trail mix to share with the group and takes a seat towards the middle. Thin wisps of lavender-scented steam stream out of an essential oil diffuser, and soundproofing panels line one wall like a modern art installation. To a casual observer, this large classroom with its huge whiteboards, lectern, and big screen tv jutting out from one wall looks like any other adult education classroom. But the people who come to learn in this classroom are not earning college credits or even work training hours here…this is rehab. Rehab for the addictive use of alcohol, opiates, heroin, and any other substance you can name, and probably some you cannot, both illicit and legally prescribed.

The people present are as innocuous as the room they are in: mothers, fathers, professionals from Fortune 500 companies, small business owners, and students. Homeless people in transition from one house to another sit at the same table with those who own large estates within gated communities. Young mothers sit next to retired nurses and swap stories about teething during class breaks. A Kennesaw State student listens with rapt attention to a run-down of the best waterfall hikes in the area given by his table mate, an executive from Atlanta.

In this room, everyone has struggled. Every person has faced a substance and felt the insidious pull towards a rabbit hole that they knew they wanted to avoid, but most of the time went in anyway. In this room, regardless of background or socio-economic status, they have common ground they can tread upon. They can be open with their struggles, share their heartbreaks as well as their victories, and they explore together in this space where no one is more of an authority over the other, where all voices carry wisdom and insight into stretching beyond the life-threateningly restrictive boundaries of addiction. This place is created to be a safe haven, without the pretense needed to avoid judgements from their peers, which only serves to bind them in further to their own guilt and unhealthy habits. They mention it often, about how they wish they could discuss what led them down this path with their small group at church, or how to ask for help without fear of losing their livelihood. They wish their families could see that their addiction was never about punishing them, and they wish they could share this part of their lives without seeing the looks of pity on the faces of friends, without knowing their struggle will be the hot gossip at next month’s book club.

Georgia, along with much of the United States, has an addiction problem. Along with being known for its diverse music heritage, Scarlett O’Hara, and movie studios, Atlanta and some of its surrounding territories have been dubbed the “Heroin Triangle”. The opioid crisis is here, and combined with alcohol and other drug-related overdoses and deaths, the number of affected families continues to soar. News articles, tv shows, and task forces are devoted towards the admirable goals of shedding a light on the problem and attempting to solve it. Earnest citizens watch the reports, confident in their erroneous assumption that the reporters aren’t talking about their neighborhood, their co-workers, or their friends. The large majority of people who notice the reports have sympathy for those who are struggling, and perhaps even wish there were more they could do, but without any direction about what to do, most people simply move on with their day. Everyone wants a solution, but no one knows how to begin, where their money would go, how to actually help what looks like a hopeless problem.

There are grants, of course, and federal funding to help supply task forces designed to tackle the issue. Private and federally funded rehabs of all shapes and sizes dot the map. Medicated assistant treatment is available in the form of suboxone and methadone, and meetings all over the state happen on a daily basis, but it still doesn’t seem to be enough to combat a deadly epidemic. As a treatment care provider, people frequently ask me, “What else can be done?”

Even with careful reflection and piles of research through the latest scientific studies, my answer is extremely simple: the world of addiction needs acceptance and understanding. Turning away from something you think will never touch you will not, in fact, keep it away from your doorstep. Pretending we don’t notice when our friends are in pain or glossing over the fact that we drink or use substances to escape our suffering isn’t keeping addiction at bay, it’s helping to add to the epidemic. A large number of rental agencies turned away our requests to lease space to put in our first outpatient treatment center because they feared the decline of the neighborhood, and bringing in “addicts” with all their “drug problems” would surely make the neighborhood less attractive to others. What they failed to notice is that people struggling with addiction already live in every neighborhood, and alcohol and illicit substances are bought and sold on almost every corner. The ultimate contribution towards building a strong and healthy neighborhood is providing options for those who need help and cultivating a culture of understanding within the community. With acceptance and understanding, people who are struggling with addiction can seek out the help they need without worrying about their job security or the disapproval of others, and they can move through treatment without the stigma of being broken. Understanding that this can happen to anyone, anywhere, removes the shiny pedestals from which we look down on those who struggle, and it is from this shared level we can support those in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces when they need it most—and this is what I feel will ultimately turn the tides on the crisis of addiction.

So what can you do to help? If you’re just one person, listen and support your friends who may be struggling. Encourage them to get help if they need it. Don’t turn away from loved ones who confess they may need treatment. If you’re a business, promote wellness within your company by utilizing your human resources department to touch base with your employees. Include mental health and addiction services in your insurance plans, and allow employees to attend or possibly even host addiction meetings within your company without fear of discrimination. When you hire coaches to boost sales or production, also include coaches who promote personal resilience and emotional intelligence. If you’re a community leader, welcome and make way for addiction treatment centers of all shapes and sizes who can serve and guide your diverse population. And finally, if you are someone struggling with addiction, realize that you are a valuable member of society at large, and that a new experience of life is always possible. #rehab #centeredrecovery#mindfulness #cleanslate

by Krista Smith, CEO and Author of the Centered Recovery Program

*names have been changed for privacy