Health

Atwater: Misconceptions of addiction, fear continue stigma

I’ve been listening for a good number of years regarding how people feel about alcoholism and drug addiction. I’ve heard from both sides of the fence – the addicts and alcoholics and those affected by them, generally their family members. The views, opinions and beliefs about this pervasive problem vary widely, but one thing stands out to me: The negative stereotype of the addict as weak, hopeless, dishonest and probably criminal seems to persist. The stigma remains.

So I ask myself, why is the negative stereotype so entrenched and hard to shake loose? Granted, things are much better than they were a few decades ago, when treatment was rare and Alcoholics Anonymous really was a secret society. But false ideas and attitudes shaped by misunderstanding, resentment and fear still persist.

I spoke to a woman the other day who was anxious to get her son into a treatment program for his drug problem but was hesitant about 12-step programs because, she said, “who wants their kid to go someplace with a 5 percent success rate?”

I responded by asking her where she got her numbers, since 12-step programs are anonymous and thus unmeasurable. Second, how success is measured varies so widely that to base attitudes on someone’s vague statistic is a pretty unreliable way to go. Is success one year of uninterrupted sobriety? Is someone who relapses then gets clean counted as a success or failure? Is someone who gets clean from heroin but overuses prescription drugs considered a success?

This mother also felt her son had a drug problem not an alcohol problem, so a few beers would be OK with her if supervised. Coke was out, but a little weed might be OK if he didn’t overdo it.

Clearly her idea of sobriety and that of most treatment professionals differed dramatically, but the truth was she really just didn’t understand addiction and was scared for her son.

Others I’ve spoken to feel strongly that alcoholism is simply drinking too much too often, and that with enough will power anyone can stop. It’s hard to understand powerlessness if you haven’t experienced it. Often family members don’t recognize their own feelings of powerlessness over the alcoholic or addict and respond with anger or disdain.

According to most estimates, if you consider addiction to alcohol, and illegal and prescription drugs, as much as one third of the population has some type of addictive disorder. That’s a massive number. It is estimated about 10 percent of those suffering from addictive problems have received some type of treatment or are in recovery.

It’s time we look past the fear, resentment and hopelessness to move beyond the stigma and focus on the treatment of the illness of addiction. Addicts and alcoholics are people with problems, and, as I’m fond of saying, “There’s only two kinds of people: people who have problems and work on them, and people who have problems and don’t.”

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He hosts the weekly radio show Straight Stuff on Addictions at recoveryinternetradio.com. He can reached by email at rickatwater@northwestcommunitycounseling.com.

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