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Stigma? For Having an Illness?

Let’s Move Toward Compassion

Photo by Neal Hemphill

Being sober is becoming fashionable in many people’s eyes.

If this helps to remove the stigma of being an alcoholic/addict, then that’s a good thing.

For anyone who is truly addicted, it’s a matter of life and death. If you can get out of the grip and stay out of it, good for you.


When an alcoholic or addict uses to excess, it can be very ugly. Being around alcoholics/addicts can be dangerous at times.

Naturally, this creates a ton of negative feelings toward alcoholics/addicts. People get scared, they get judgmental, and they get frustrated.

Many people think “Why don’t you just stop?”

I understand where this question comes from, but it lacks the understanding that if someone is an alcoholic/addict, by definition they’ve lost the ability to stop. This is what addiction is.

And if you haven’t been there, it can be hard to understand.


When people feel negatively judged, and when they are beating up on themselves, it creates a lot of shame.

This shame can be terribly hard to overcome.

Alcoholics and addicts are often stigmatized.

Let’s take a look at that word, from Dictionary dot com:

"Stigma - 1) a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation.”


I never lived on the streets (yet) or lived in homeless shelters (yet. And if I stay clean and sober, there’s a good chance I never will.)

I was spared a lot of being stigmatized, but I sure had a lot of shame.

An incredibly important thing I learned is that alcoholism is an illness. It is considered a disease by the American Medical Association. This has major implications in courts and hospitals, for treatment, and for the understanding that it’s not a moral failure.

Now you’ll often hear the term Acohol Use Disorder.

This is how dictionary dot com defines that:

“Alcohol Use Disorder - 1) a chronic relapsing disorder characterized by alcohol abuse or dependence, as compulsive use of alcoholic beverages, the development of physical or psychological symptoms upon reducing or ceasing intake, and decreased ability to function socially and professionally. Abbreviation: AUD”

I was taught that I had an illness, and I needed to get well. This illness I have is progressive and fatal, and it is incurable. It can be arrested by abstaining from drinking alcohol.

The part that was and is invaluable to me is the idea that I am a sick person trying to get well, not a bad person trying to get good.


Yes, I did a lot of bad things. And I can’t excuse them. I need to take full responsibility for all of my actions.

But to understand that I have an illness is to begin to have compassion for myself, and to begin to overcome the feelings of shame that accompanied my drinking/using days.

Part of getting well is to stop doing “bad things.” When alcohol and drugs stopped running my life, I was able to determine, over time, who I really am, and the kind of person that I want to be.

This is freeing.


The idea that society stigmatizes people with illness is a sad thing. We need compassion, and we need to sincerely offer help rather than harshness.

There is enough of a burden for an alcoholic/addict to overcome.


A lot of beautiful and famous/semi-famous people are talking about sobriety and fashionable mocktail bars and Sober January and so on. Cool, I suppose. But, it can be a pose and a branding opportunity for some of them.

What I want to say about that is this: don’t believe that there is anything glamorous about being addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. Real addiction is brutal, and it’s truly a life-and-death drama.

There’s a huge difference between addiction and choosing sobriety as a “lifestyle choice.” The latter can be great, and I applaud it. Breaking away from the former is nothing short of miraculous.

For those that have cleared the active addiction phase, and are living sober, more power to you. We’re in this together.

No shame. No stigma. Just health and sobriety.


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