Shattering the Stigma at Home


Taken from a website: Shatter the stigma, Mend the mind:

Stigma limits a person’s ability to:

  • get and keep a job
  • fit in at school without being bullied
  • find a safe place to live
  • attend college or university
  • receive adequate health care (including treatment for substance use and mental health problems) and other support
  • be accepted by their family, friends and community
  • find and make friends or have other long-term relationships
  • obtain insurance or loans
  • volunteer within their community
  • take part in social activities

Prejudice and discrimination often become internalized by people with mental health and substance use problems. This may lead to self-stigmatize, meaning:

  • believe the negative things that other people and the media say
  • have lower self-esteem because of feelings of guilt and shame

Prejudice and discrimination contribute to people with mental health and substance use problems keeping their problems a secret.

As a result:

  • avoid getting the help needed
  • mental health or substance use problems are less likely to get better, and in many cases get worse
  • may become isolated, depressed and are at an increased risk of suicide
  • youth may experience increased drug abuse, suicide attempts and teen pregnancy
  • may lose hope in the ability to recover


This week has been one filled with hope and pain. Watching my beloved husband suffer through addiction is devastating and often leaves me with feelings of powerlessness and despair. After saying yes to rehab, my husband now struggles through his withdrawal from opiates. It started with days of sleep, then escalating to the physical and psychological symptoms of sleeplessness, nausea, vomiting, restless legs, and severe anxiety. Amidst all this I have endured with the hope that comes from knowing that my husband has taken the first step in his recovery by accepting and then actively seeking help. His bed is open for him on the 17th of October.

In my reflection of the past few weeks leading to my husband’s decision to get clean and in my preparations for the road ahead, I have learned a lot about stigma and how it relates to addiction and mental health.  I have had opportunity to research it, read the work of people who are bravely working to combat it, and been able to openly talk to my husband about his experiences with opiates and his decision to get better. I have also been facing the stigma at home. It all started with an engagement party.

This weekend we were supposed to go to an engagement party for my brother-in-law in New Jersey. A lot of our family (on my husband’s side) is going to be there. Originally, my husband’s sister had invited us down to her house in south jersey for the weekend to spend time with her and the kids. Last weekend, she heard that my husband was using again from another family member. In a phone conversation, she expressed to me that we would not be welcome in her home if he was actively using. “He has made the choice to use drugs over family”, she told me. Perhaps it was his sister’s approach, the simplistic accusation that he had just made an easy choice, or the way her words felt like a hard smack in the face, devoid of love or understanding, but my first response was one of anger.

It is important to understand the communication patterns that led up to this conversation. During a visit with another sister-in-law from San Diego a little over a week ago, we had some time alone together and she took the opportunity to ask how my husband was doing. She had heard about his inpatient hospital stay over the summer from her mother (my husband’s mother’s husband’s ex-wife). I openly told her what was going on. She confessed to me that she has never fully known or understood his struggle with opiates.  She then talked to her younger sister, who then spoke with my aforementioned sister-in-law to who lives in south jersey (she is his full-blooded sister). I am sure you can see the picture that I am painting. A family who has trouble openly dealing with matters related to my husband’s long history of addiction, talking behind closed doors, shrouding it in secrecy, and contributing to the shame and stigma he feels.

So I felt anger. Anger with his sister for shutting us out. Anger with his other sister for never knowing. Anger with his mother for never telling her. Anger that it took so long for anyone to reach out directly to me.  I wanted to blame his sister and everyone else for his failed recovery in the past. As for my sister-in-law, she is also a recovering addict with over 10 years of clean time. My therapist reminded me, and rightly so, she is allowed to set limits for herself and for her children. After taking time to think and process everything, I know blaming and pointing fingers is not the answer. Number one it’s inaccurate, and number two it’s counterproductive. Perhaps it was easier for me to blame them, rather than to see all of our roles, including mine, and especially my husband’s, in his addiction and recovery. I am not sure. As I navigate through these dark waters, I realize that we are all doing the best we can. Navigating without a GPS system, struggling to see without radar, operating without a manual in a society that stigmatizes drug use and addiction by telling us it is a moral failing and an act of criminality and depravity. In a failing healthcare system that denies treatment because covetous insurance companies assert lack of medical necessity.  Making it easier for my husband to deny his addiction, bury it, and reject help. Making it hard to find help when he is ready. Leaving family members feeling lost and hopeless.

This morning I cancelled our hotel reservation as my husband is not well enough to travel. He expressed severe anxiety over seeing his family and having to go out to dinner and to the engagement party.  In the past I would have lied to his family saying he had the flu or some other run-of-the-mill ailment. Initially I thought that this behavior was only the co-dependency: my enabling words and my weak actions easily manipulated by my addicted husband. I realize now that it was not just that, it was also the shame I felt. Shame that kept me from sharing the truth with my family and that kept me from asking for help. So today I took another step in breaking the stigma. The stigma that lives in my family and inside of me. I sent this to my husband’s mother and sister:

So I cancelled our reservation and we won’t be coming down. 3 weeks ago — relapsed. He told me about it the week — was here. He described it as “autopilot” due to anxiety, depression, disappointment…so he definitely needs more treatment. We decided it is best that he goes to rehab. This week has been tough with symptoms like sleeplessness, nausea, anxiety, etc..  He was feeling better Thursday and yesterday. Last night he started to have severe anxiety about coming down and did not sleep all. He seemed to sleep better when I told him we didn’t have to go. I just don’t want to push him.
The good news is he has a bed in a really good place on the 17th. I will send you info. We call back Tuesday to make sure insurance is approved. Praying there won’t be any road blocks. I think it is really important that — and I are honest about what’s going on. He feels a lot of shame, and stigma doesn’t help. He is fighting this addiction but needs more help to do it. He has been actively trying to get into rehab, which has proven to be difficult, but he did it. He has told me he hopes he can talk to you more about this in an open and honest way. When he gets out of rehab I think that will be important in his recovery.
There is no manual in dealing with with this but I’m doing the best I can. Love you guys.

I am lucky, and despite the hardships, I am finding gratitude in the little things (or maybe they aren’t so little). Like gratitude that, after sending the text message, I received a loving and supporting response from my mother-in-law. Gratitude for the words of support I received from my sister-in-law later. I would never have known that loving response if I hadn’t spoken up. My husband wouldn’t have known either, he thanked me many times today.

In my journey through the addiction, a common theme emerges: empathy. Not just expecting empathy from others but also giving it. Instead of responding with anger and blame, seeking to understand the views of those that are affected. Understanding my sister-in-law when she can not allow us into her home, understanding we have differing views, understanding my mother-in-law’s coping strategies, understanding the trauma my husband has endured.  This empathy is built not just by our experiences but in what we do within these experiences and how we share them. For me it is cultivated in connection with others, it is opening a dialogue, building self awareness of my own limiting beliefs, listening compassionately, and finding strength even with the risk of rejection. Then we can be free from the fear, remove the shame, unshackle our minds by shedding judgment, and start talking openly and honestly in order to shatter the stigma. And it has to start at home.



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