There’s a sad tendency to conflate addiction with shame, personal responsibility, and willpower. To many, the notion of succumbing to addiction is one that declares you weak and damaged. It tries to pummel you into a position of victimhood and powerlessness, one where your condition is a result of your own shortcomings and mistakes, and solvable only through others.
This is not true. Addiction is an illness, and many of the factors that determine addiction are uncontrollable and have nothing to do with choice. All it takes is one mistake, in a bad moment, at a bad place, and a cascade of events can lead into one of the worst chapters in a person’s life.
Whether you get addicted is not a matter of character or personality. There is no such thing as an addictive personality, and your addiction is not a result of your own flawed principles or actions. However, coming to terms with that – and overcoming the message of shame attached to addiction – is a hard yet necessary step for a successful recovery into long-term sobriety.
Before we go into how important attitude is in recovery and how beating the notion of shame and victimhood is often central to long-term sobriety and a feeling of content, we must go over the mechanics of shame and its role in perpetuating the cycle of addiction that so many people remain trapped in.
What Is Shame?
Shame is linked to perception, not action. This is what makes this such a challenging thing to counter in a person’s psychology. When fighting shame, you must not just realize that you haven’t done anything, but you must find a way to overcome the judgment and prejudice of those around you, because they may in fact make you feel a certain way regardless of your circumstances or the context of your situation.
It’s true that addiction is about the loss of rational agency, and self-control – but that’s not something to be ashamed of. The very way in which addiction functions belies that it overcomes a person’s self-control by attacking the brain. Addictiveness is determined by a person’s emotional state and the actual physical addictiveness of a substance relative to that person.
Alcohol is more addictive to some than it is to others, for example, and when someone with a tendency towards alcoholism gets addicted, they may in fact have less of a history of drinking as their other peers yet are still trapped by a growing need for alcohol as their primary source of pleasure and satisfaction.
The role shame plays in this scenario is that, rather than go beyond the blame game, people try to find some reason for their addiction that allows them to channel their frustrations – and they often find themselves. This only perpetuates their condition, because it robs them of the emotional state needed to effectively combat addiction, and reverse the effect it has on the brain.
Addiction Is Not a Matter of Personal Responsibility
Addiction happens. It can happen to almost anybody. It happens to high school kids in a bad crowd. It happens to the regular worker who drops off at a bar after every shift’s end. It can happen to teachers, athletes, loving parents, talented artists, empathic activists and even to the most dedicated and willful of journalists.
When you find yourself trapped in addiction, the cause of that situation is not a matter of personal responsibility. However, your ability to fight it is.
The simplest analogy is a trip and a fall. Tripping happens to the best of us. We don’t wish for it – we just make a little misstep and fall on our face. But once we’re down there, once gravity has had its way with us and reminded us of the dangers of losing balance in an unfortunate situation, it’s entirely up to us to get back up. If we choose to stay down, then our situation is our fault – because we’re not fighting to get back up on our feet. But if you choose to fight – if you decide you’re not giving up, if you tell yourself that you’re going to keep struggling until you’ve “made it” – then no one can tell you that you have something to be ashamed of.
Choosing to break an addiction requires personal responsibility. It requires strength. It requires will. It requires wanting to stop using, from the bottom of your heart, then dedicating yourself to that task, despite any setbacks and the potential for continuous failure before success. And yes, it requires humility, and often, the ability to ask others for help. The path to recovery is one you’re going to be walking, but it’s a good idea to ask others for help in that walk.
The Choice to Fight Is Never Weak
If you’re struggling with overcoming addiction, then congratulations – you’re strong. It takes strength to do that. To struggle. To keep on looking for alternatives, treatments, and ways to continue your recovery. From residential treatments to sober living homes, there are many ways to do recovery. Finding yours – even if it’s in the hands of group therapy, and other group-related activities rather than an individual pursuit – is always admirable.
Even if you find that asking others for help in recovery somehow means giving up on your own ability to fight addiction, then remember that at the end of the day, asking for help is just that – help. It’s not asking someone to walk the walk for you – you still must take every single grueling step, you still must swear off the drugs, you still must take up the responsibility to pay your dues, work on your new habits, achieve your goals, go to your meetings, and adjust to your new life. That’s not giving up – that’s a full-fledged battle. Don’t be ashamed by your past – take satisfaction in the fact that you’re actively overcoming it.
Words Are Powerful
Some people find that the very word “addict” is associated with guilt and shame so strongly that they decide the best course of action is to entirely boycott it – cut it out of the terminology, and never again label themselves or anyone else in the process of recovery an “addict.”
If you’re uncomfortable with calling yourself an “addict,” and you’d like to distance yourself from the term and what connotates it, then do so. And remember to do so for everyone else. Addiction is a large problem – it affects roughly 23.5 million Americans, and they all struggle with finding a way out of their situation. The path to recovery is a little different for everyone – but shame and guilt are things found in the hearts of almost everyone who’s had to struggle with addiction.