From Dictionary.com, defining stigma: "a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation."
Stigma obscures the truth about alcoholism and drug dependence. It fosters the public's misunderstanding that addiction is somebody else's problem only affecting "bad" or immoral people who live under bridges or deserve prison instead of help. Stigma is why neighbors abhor treatment or halfway houses in their communities. And it is the core reason politicians continue to create laws and rules that foster a "war on drugs" that ignores the fact that addiction is a public health problem affecting all of us.
Even worse, stigma fosters shame, which prevents people who need help from asking for it. Every addict wonders, "Why can't I stop on my own?" or fears the consequences of being honest and getting treatment. I have known many people over the years who won't even share their struggles with friends or their own families.
Recently, a friend from the East Coast whom I haven't seen in 30 years sent me an email about a woman in his life. "Over the past few months, her behavior has become ... well, strange is the best way to describe it. She's forgetful, and she's fallen down. ... Happens more if she's had a few drinks. So the conclusion was she's been drinking too much, and she got herself all set to go in for rehab. The rehab person wanted her to have a complete physical before checking in, and it turns out all the weirdness is not due to beer. (She's always been and still is a moderate drinker, for what that's worth.) ... So not beer, but a brain tumor. Pray for us."
The woman has since had surgery. It's not clear yet whether the tumor is malignant. But according to my friend, everyone's relieved.
"Interestingly, people are happier that it's a brain tumor and not alcoholism. ... Odd about that stigma. Even she said to tell people she has a brain tumor and is not a stumbling drunk. And she's a left-wing liberal who understands that drug addiction is a disease, etc."
In 1989, I was admitted to a psychiatric ward in New York City because volition alone could not stop me from killing myself with alcohol and other drugs. I needed help — a lot of it — and was fortunate for the support and love from my family. But even they — and I — weren't ready to embrace the truth. I checked in under an altered first and last name. Only a handful of close friends knew addiction was my illness. Not knowing how to tell my grandparents, we kept silent, and I never again spoke to my grandfather before he died seven months later.
Some attitudes have changed since then. But not enough.
I met with a man the other day. His skin has turned an ugly yellow because his liver slowly is drowning in alcohol. Even for him, there's no denying he needs help. His family listened as we talked about alcoholism, and for a moment, hope filled the room when he finally admitted he's an alcoholic.
"OK, OK, you've all got me convinced. I'll go to treatment if you'll just leave me alone now," he said, a mix of anger and fear propelling his words, a few tears in his eyes. "But only somewhere nobody finds me ... on an island with a beach. ... I'll need a tan to say I was away on a vacation."
Golden brown or sickly yellow, the color of his skin isn't the issue. It is the darkness of his perspective and ours that must change.
Dear Readers: I wrote that piece in 2010. Since then, I sense a shift in the overall public perspective about addiction as the illness it is. Maybe not to the degree society views other chronic illnesses. But insurance companies, politicians, the media and the neighbors next door seem to understand that people under the influence of substances they cannot control are still people and that helping them makes sense.
Ironically, though, too many addicts and alcoholics themselves, especially those suffering in the throes of their illness, still resist accepting that they are sick and try to hide behind the stigma to avoid getting help. This week alone, four families I was trying to help each lost someone — a father, a daughter, a brother or a grandmother. The loved ones died because they were convinced they weren't sick or sick enough to need help, or they wanted to make themselves well without professional input. And that's why I'm using this "old" column again.
William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs. His book "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery" was published last year. Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected] To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.