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Atwater: Addiction is an illness, and recovery requires support

Despite the increase in public awareness and media attention, addictive disease is still highly stigmatized.

We only see the sensational cases and usually the dramatic crashes of high-profile people. So why do we work so hard to reduce stigma? I think largely because the misconceptions and stereotypes create an atmosphere of misunderstanding, fear and shame, which makes it more difficult for people to recover.

Like mental illness, the symptoms of addiction are largely behavioral, and this means the difference between addicted and not addicted is a matter of degree.

This can be a scary concept, but the fact is if someone in your family or close circle is not suffering from some form of addictive illness, you’re unusual.

Most of us don’t think someone made a bad decision if they suffer from cancer, heart disease or diabetes – that it was their own fault and they could change if they wanted to. However, with alcoholism or drug addiction, there are still those who think it’s just a series of bad decisions, as if someone would choose to be an addict.

People don’t generally get better in an atmosphere of shame and criticism. The saying goes, “We’re as sick as our secrets.” Recovery is more likely to occur in an environment of nonjudgment, acceptance and respect. I think this is why recovering alcoholics are so effective in helping other alcoholics. There’s little room for judgment, treatment is respectful regardless of how far the fall and the environment is loving (albeit tough) and understanding.

One of the biggest hurdles to successful interventions is the judgment, blame and anger of the family members. It is usually only when the family members can detach, not take their addicted family member’s behavior personally and finally get objective that an intervention can succeed.

September is National Recovery Month, and I think as a community, the more we see recovery is not only possible but likely, the more we see the large number of people moving in the direction of sobriety and a healthier lifestyle, the more we see addiction as an illness from which people recover every day, the more support we offer to those who still suffer.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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