All About Addiction

Helping addicts get their lives back

Shame on Us for Shaming Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman died after a heroin overdose we should have stopped.

Everyone has heard about the 70 heroin envelopes in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s NYC apartment. Everyone has heard about the 20 syringes and the prescription bottles. Everyone has heard about the two decades of sobriety and the recent stint in a short term rehab program.

But everyone is focusing on the wrong parts of this story.

More people relapse than don’t after seeking help for addiction, yet somehow we manage to make those who slip, relapse, or stumble feel ashamed. I’ve experienced this first-hand and have heard too many others’ stories to stomach another death like this. We kick them out of treatment, evict them from apartments, fire them, arrest them, and relegate them to “newcomer” (the term used for people new to 12-step groups) status upon discovery.  

And we wonder why they don’t come running to tell us the truth?

Slips and relapses are opportunities for growth, but we need to be there to help develop the awareness. Those who slip need support and should be congratulated and applauded for having the guts to come “clean” but instead they’re made to walk the plank. Millions of people in recovery look at addiction as a chronic disease; at the same time they feel completely justified in dismissing the sickest from the facilities in which they are supposedly being treated.

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We need to either stop asking for honesty or be better prepared to accept it and help.

If we want to do something about the addiction problem in this country we have to stop shoving the same version of this story down people’s throats. I have some suggestions:

  1. Relapse is part of recovery—We have to be better prepared.

Pretending that our clients will move forward without relapsing sets them up for unrealistic expectations. It also increases their shame when they slip. We need to be honest and prepare them. We must develop relapse prevention plans and a strong relationship with your clients that allow them to know they won’t be shamed if they stumble.

  1. Drug users are not thinking coherently while under the influence—We need to know how to speak to them.

Talking to a person while they are high about the long term consequences of their actions is absurd. This is a time to speak their language and make sure they are safe. Save the preaching for some other time (like never).

  1. Most people who experience a relapse get better—We have to stop selling them short.

Individuals who relapse should be encouraged to talk about it, examine the experience, and learn. Talking about relapses as events to fear terribly does not decrease their probability; it simply decreases the probability of us finding out about the relapse. Humans learn from mistakes and we should support that process among those who struggle with drugs and alcohol.

  1. Not all users are ready to accept abstinence—We must have other options ready for them.

Dogma is nice. It’s easy to remember. It looks great on stickers. But if a drug user is not ready to quit, sending them back out to “get some more experience” or “reach their bottom” is dangerous. We should be offering any form of help they are willing to accept, not just the one we would most like to offer. “The easier, softer way” is all you will be able to provide sometimes. If you keep waiting for your preferred “more difficult, harder way” you might just be waiting to identify a body. That’s on us, not them.

Any loss is a tragedy. I am sick and tired of losing people to a condition that we should do better to ameliorate. It’s time for us to focus on saving lives, not on some idealized puritanical version of what life in the United States should look like (to you). A caller on a show I appeared on said that celebrities should do something better with their time instead of using drugs—the caller “reads the bible three times a day” and has never touched alcohol or drugs. Well that’s great but it’s nothing more than burying your head in the sand. People use drugs—get over it and help them or get out of the way. There’s a sea-change happening and we are coming for those who are suffering. And you can’t stop us.

© 2014 Adi Jaffe, All Rights Reserved

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Adi Jaffe, Ph.D., is the executive director of Alternatives Behavioral Health and a lecturer at UCLA and California State University Long Beach.

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