Dealing with Myths and Stigma in Recovery

Arming yourself with information about the way myths and stigmas affect addicts and how people respond to them, can go a long way in supporting people to find recovery. Effective treatment for substance use disorders requires an understanding of the myths and stigmas of addiction. I’d like examine a few myths that surround addiction and foster a misunderstanding of how to best support people to find recovery.

1. Everyone needs to reach bottom before quitting.
Early in my career I worked with adolescents. One of the clients on my caseload was a 17 year-old girl who had a long history of prostitution, a significant legal history, and a span of alcohol and drug use that began when she was five. During treatment she spent time talking about her alcohol and drug history and how that affected the decisions in her life. She had various opportunities to quit using chemicals but she reasoned that she wasn’t ready. While she came to a place where she was able to give up her chemical use, she never escaped her history of prostitution. She was able to develop a motto that supported her to quit using alcohol and drugs: your bottom is when you stop digging.

This client reinforces the notion that there is little evidence that the level of consequence a person accumulates before seeking help is related to their chances of succeeding in recovery. It is always better to get help early than to hold out for the perfect desperate moment. The idea that waiting until you hit bottom comes from the notion that you are more likely to pay attention if you experience a greater degree of pain in your life. This is simply not true.

Many times I will hear someone in recovery suggest that “only an addict or alcoholic can understand another addict or alcoholic.” I don’t think this is the case and is essentially an urban myth. When I think of addiction I think of people feeling helpless, powerless, and being held captive by their dark side. My sense is that we don’t need to be brilliant to understand the mind of an addict, just human.

2. The best way to get sober is by attending 12-step meetings.
While this was thought to be true at one time when there was a lack of resources and available treatment approaches, the reality is that one size doesn’t work for everyone. If you need support and don’t resonate with 12-step meetings don’t fret. I invite you to explore Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Rational Emotive Therapy, Stages-of-change, motivational interviewing, anti-craving meds, natural recovery, spontaneous remission, or bibliotherapy. It is important to remember that recovery looks different for everybody.

3. A proper diagnosis is important to help people recover.
Having worked with many homeless clients who come with a variety of mental health diagnosis’ I can let you know that independent of the diagnosis, clients engage in dysfunctional behavior, don’t follow through with provider appointments, or continue to use despite the consequences they continue to experience. Within the psychiatric community a diagnosis or label can be helpful to convey client experience, it can be fun to engage in psychiatric lingo, can be used for the purposes of billing, but ultimately a label or diagnosis is less than helpful. When you label someone not only do they have to overcome the affliction, they also have to overcome the label.

4. Addicts and alcoholics drink because they’re addicts.
This is a myth that tends to be rampant in the self-help and addiction communities. It ultimately suggests that people are destined not to move beyond the confines of their past. Is it addict behavior to want to use alcohol or drugs to change the way you feel or is it merely human to want to feel relief?

Arming yourself with information about the way myths and stigmas affect addicts and how people respond to them, can go a long way in supporting people to find recovery. Whatever you decide to do, good luck on your path.

Being of service

I haven’t posted any new material for well over a year. Apologies. My goal is to create at least two blog posts per month and strive towards two new podcasts per month. I’ve suffered from horrible writer’s block, and until today I couldn’t move past my current ‘block’

If you’ve followed me on Twitter for any length of time you know that 1) my grandparents survived Auschwitz, 2) my grandmother was my first sponsor, 3) I revere my grandparents and 4) I strive to embrace their model of recovery which includes me being both useful and kind.

I have been sober for over 35 years and have worked as a mental health and addictions counselor for over 31 years. While I have not provided direct clinical services for over a year, I have worked as a consultant with various orgs in the Seattle area the last 18 months. To earn a living and pay my bills I drive limo. I’ve been driving limo on and off for the last 30 years.

Driving limo has provided me with ample opportunity to be of service to others. I’d like to tell you about one interaction which has affected in a huge way and created an immense sense of gratitude for my passenger.

Over a year ago I picked up a woman from a local cancer center. ‘Denise’ was a lovely woman with porcelain skin, a slight build, and red hair. I’d guess she was about 55 years old. Initially I didn’t think she was a patient, rather, an executive working for the organization as her fare was paid through a company account. Seven weeks after our initial meeting, I met her again and understood she was undergoing her fourth round of Chemo. During the ride home she let me know that she had been sober for four months and was certain this was to be her last attempt at saving her life. My sense is that many times treatment for cancer often extends the quantity and not the quality of life. My thoughts about cancer seemed to comfort Denise and she came to understand that I understood her point-of-view.

I didn’t see Denise for a few months and was pleased when the call sheet for the day included transporting her from the center to her home, over two hours away. I wanted to catch up and ask her if there was anything I could do for her. I am seldom surprised by my limo clients but her request was a bit jarring. Denise let me know that she had been given a “timeline” by her doctor who suggested that she had less than five months to live. Denise asked me if I would be willing to capture her life and chronicle significant events so as to create a legacy for her family and friends. We agreed to meet in three weeks.

I met her at Denny’s on a Tuesday afternoon. I spent six hours asking her over 125 questions and gently prodding for more information when I needed clarification. When we departed I was emotionally spent and very sad that this lovely human being would succumb to what her doctors termed as ‘mangled DNA”. I let her know I would type up my notes within two weeks.

I called her as promised and we met at a copy shop. I was able to generate 18 pages of prepared copy from my notes and responses to the questions and recorded interview. Denise showed me 54 addressed and stamped manilla envelopes, addressed to family and friends. We made the copies and placed the parcels in the mail.

She cried as she she hugged me goodbye.

I haven’t see Denise since the encounter at the copy shop. I often wondered what happened to her. This afternoon I received a letter she typed that was sent to me by her daughter:

Dear Todd,

In the event of my passing I asked my daughter to send this letter to your supervisor. I wanted to thank you for your time and your willingness and your sincerity. I understood that you were a decent man when I met you and you were far more concerned with my comfort than you were with your work timetable. Thank you for stopping at Subway to buy me lunch. I hope you weren’t disappointed that I didn’t eat the whole thing- chemo you know.

I’m sorry we won’t get to be friends. I’m sorry I won’t get to learn more about your grandmother. I’m sorry that I left a friend. I’m sorry that I left my family and friends. Cancer sucks balls. FUCK YOU CANCER!

I didn’t realize that when I met you you would have 12th stepped me, but you shared your ESH (experience, strength and hope). I’m not sure you knew you helped me stay sober. But you did.

Thanks for your patience and willingness to spend so much time to ask me all of those questions. Thank you for spending your time to type up my responses in a cogent form. Thank you for helping me send on my ‘living legacy’ to my family and friends.

During one of our initial meetings you told me that you aspired to be useful and kind, something your grandmother laid at your feet when you got sober. I can assure you that without question, your grandmother would be proud of how you have handled yourself. There’s no reason to worry so much: you have been both useful and kind.

I will miss you


I attend meetings on a regular basis and would often lament that I seldom get to affect change driving limo. What I have come to understand is that how I affect change looks different than what a regular 12-step call might look like, or volunteering, or working with people in the program or acting as a sponsor. My grandmother used to say that when you want to develop a certain quality, you don’t get to decide how the lesson manifests.

Yep, useful and kind….