Shame as a Barrier to Addiction Treatment

One of the largest barriers for recovering addicts is shame.

Posted Nov 17, 2017

Stockvault
Source: Stockvault

Jane has been drinking for 20 years on a daily basis – but somehow managed to maintain her job and family. She occasionally binge drank and had memory lapses where she would act in ways that were uncharacteristic of her usual personality. She woke up hungover the day after her 35th Birthday and decided that she needed to get sober. However, she was embarrassed to tell any of her friends or family that she needed help and discretely attended a 12-Step meeting an hour from her house to avoid running into anybody she might know. Two years later, Jane is still sober. However, she continues to feel shame about being in recovery from alcoholism and hides this part of her life from many of her friends, family, and coworkers. At times, she feels that there's more of a stigma around being a recovering alcoholic drinking than there is about being an active drinker.

Sadly, Jane's story is not uncommon. Research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) indicates that shame is the largest barrier to alcoholics getting treatment. Ironically, asking for help and seeking treatment should be something recovering alcoholics are proud of. 

While the anonymity tradition in many 12-Step programs is important for newcomers to feel that they are in a safe and confidential space – the subtle implication is that recovery should also be kept "anonymous." Many 12-Step program members confuse the concept of "breaking anonymity" while in a 12- Step program, with telling people that they are in recovery from alcoholism. There is a difference, and it is a personal choice to tell another person if you are sober – but it is a 12-Step tradition not to state that you are sober through a 12-Step Program –particularly at the "level of press, radio, and film." 

Recovering alcoholics could help so many more individuals in their friendship circles, families, and communities if others knew that they were sober.  However, many feel shame and will hide this fact at all costs...a tragic reality of the ongoing stigma and shame associated with addiction and getting help.

The movie The Anonymous People by Greg Williams is a life-changing film for those feeling shame about being in recovery.  He suggests that instead of opening up with "Hi, I am Greg and I am an alcoholic/addict," saying "I am an individual in long-term recovery" would send a message of pride to others. The movie highlights several well-known actors, politicians, and athletes and demonstrates that addiction does not discriminate and recovery is an accomplishment. Greg's non-profit organization Facing Addiction initiated a "coming out" recovery march in Washington D.C. last year. The intention is to do for addiction what so many activists have done for the LGBT pride movement and AIDS crisis. If those in recovery are no longer anonymous but are your neighbors, friends, and celebrities whom you respect – we may begin to see them as human beings instead of representations of their addiction.