It is seen everywhere. People and organizations are calling for stories from recovering addicts to reduce the stigma, and shame that surround addiction, and that it’s important to show the world a different version of what they are used to when hearing about addiction.  

Out of the Shadows! Time to Reduce the Stigma 1

That sentiment was echoed by the work group assembled at Anna Maria College this past November 15. The group was reconvened as a follow up to an earlier meeting to develop strategies to stem the tide in this unending health crisis. The group of consisted of members of law enforcement, academic administrators, treatment providers, students, and recovery advocates

Discussion focused on the obstacles encountered in providing services to those in need. A prominent view people get of addiction is a pathological one. They read about it in the papers, and the newsfeeds, see it in the movies and on television. It’s generally characterized by an undesirable individual, hustling, stealing, dealing drugs, or prostituting themselves (and each other) to satisfy their insatiable need.  The news stories sensationalize the drug busts, or the violent crimes fueled by an out of control addiction.  

Addiction is often talked about in terms of a “war,” a need to stamp out the “enemy,” despite the reality that the “enemy” is our sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, mothers and fathers.   Society tends to turn away from this human wreckage, often portraying them as weak, misfits, with no redeeming qualities or value. They are chastised for their lifestyle, and there is a long-held belief that this must be what they want from their life.  

Without getting into a long discourse about the bio-psycho-social aspects of addiction, and the life experiences that influence an addict’s insatiable appetite to seek relief from whatever it is causing their distress or discomfort, the professionals in the room wanted to talk about what’s fueling this epidemic.  A topic that is rarely seen on the news, in the papers, or in movies. It is the story of an underlying health crisis that society is even more unwilling to address, let alone talk about it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) more than one in five Americans have been sexually molested, one in four beaten by a parent, one in every three couples engage in physical violence, over 25% of Americans have an alcohol dependent relative, one in eight witness their mother being beaten. Against this backdrop is it any wonder that our society today is self-medicating in numbers unprecedented in history. When you consider that more than three in four women and men in treatment for substance use disorders report trauma histories the correlation is undeniable.

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The working group believe that if we are to ever change the downward spiral on this story of addiction, we must address the underlying issues that are driving our youth to seek relief in such high-risk circumstances that death is a likely result.

If you listen to the story of a person with a substance use disorder history, it might sound like this, “my journey into addiction began early in life, long before I found the comforting effects of drugs and alcohol.  Since childhood, I always felt some type of emotional distress or discomfort.  I was a lost child, hurting and confused, needing comfort and escape from my reality at any cost. It is not a giant leap of faith to realize that drug use is only a symptom of the underlying disease. By definition trauma is unbearable or intolerable, as we continue to listen to the story that definition takes on more meaning, “these feelings lead to thoughts about being someone else, someone more secure and confident, whose life was safe and fun, exciting and loving, and not so confusing.  I could only struggle for so long before I needed to seek relief, and that is exactly what I did. However, my relief came in the form of dishonesty and fantasy.  I needed something to change how I felt, how I saw myself, and how I thought others saw me.  Once I found the magic of alcohol and later in opiates, I thought I had found the answer to my problems.  Being in an intoxicated stupor provided me with the comfort and security needed, and made everything seem okay”.

In the Minnesota Longitudinal Study that focused on how relationships shape development, trauma emerged as the most important predictor of adult functioning. The firsthand accounts of the current crisis by the panel members underscored the finding of the study and one by one everyone in the room nodded in agreement.  This led to a consensus in the room for beefed up prevention efforts in early education, a change in the way we interpret and interact with the substance use disorder population and assessing the impact of trauma as suggested by the Adverse Childhood Experience study.  A study that seemed to validate the 1895 work of Sigmund Freud, “this person suffers from memories” theory.

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Advances in the fields of Neuroscience, Developmental Psychopathology, and Interpersonal Neurobiology are increasing our understanding of the human brain and its neural networks and show promise in being able to unlock the mysteries of what is often considered intractable behavior.

If society can’t envision it, recognize or embrace it, then how can we expect to change it?  There are plenty of success stories out there, but there are way too many failures. There are stories about resilience and redemption, of courage and love, and there are the tragic stories of unfulfilled potential, disrupted families and premature loss of life.

These success stories that are attributable to love, compassion, and understanding are needed to help us move away from the symptom-focused medicine practiced in the 19th century to an integrated approach where we understand the impact of environment and relationships on each individual and respond accordingly. As people, we can still learn something from one of history’s greatest minds. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”


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