Sticks and stones…
By Nick Adams
What was the biggest lie you were told as a child? I’m not talking about the big guy in the red suit or the magical bunny laying foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. What I am talking about is something you were made to believe but you learned over time was far from true. I think I can trace a lot of my issues back to the “sticks and stones” myth. When I was young it was common to hear other kids and even adults say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As I grew up, I began to realize that words can hurt, sometimes even more than a stick or a stone. Physical pain is one thing but the emotional pain that words can cause is another thing entirely. Words can hurt and when hurtful words are repeated over and over, they can cause deeper psychological wounds that may take years to heal, if they ever heal completely.
How easily do we identify people with labels that are different from the person’s name? I am a big man. I stand tall above most people I meet and I am overweight. When people refer to me as “Big Guy” it is defining me by my size and at some level that affects me. I don’t go around referring to people as “Short Stuff” or “Freckle Face,” which may be an accurate physical description, but doesn’t take into account that a person is more than just what they physically present.
If we meet someone named Joe who has cancer, we wouldn’t then use that disease as a means of defining who Joe is. Joe isn’t cancer. Joe has cancer. Someone who is living with diabetes may self-identify themselves as diabetic in order to let others know that there are certain foods they must avoid or medication they must take daily, but no one would say that being diabetic defines them fully. With addiction, though, it seems like there are other rules.
Health Canada, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization all view addiction as a progressive brain disease to which there is no known cure. There are only ways to cope with the day-to-day symptoms using methods like cognitive behavioral therapy, harm reduction, or abstinence-based approaches. And in some cases, medication may be deemed necessary. Just as someone with high blood pressure must follow the suggestions of medical professionals, the person who is living with addiction must do the same. Each person’s situation and treatment program will be slightly different, based on the substances that are involved, and the social, psychological and physical needs of that person. So why then do so many people look down on those living with addiction?
Part of the reason is that addiction is still falsely believed to be a choice. That somehow the person who has become addicted made a decision and the result is something they have to live with. This idea would be akin to blaming the person who has cancer because somehow their choices and behaviours led to them getting it. So much research has been done to examine the risks associated with getting cancer, but even with this knowledge, we are still not yet able to fully protect ourselves from acquiring the illness.
Not everyone who drinks will develop a drinking problem, and not everyone who uses drugs will develop a drug problem. It is unknown exactly why certain people react the way that they do to substances, but it is certainly not their fault. The person allergic to strawberries doesn’t realize it until they have their first strawberry. In a perfect world, no one would need to drink or use drugs and then there would be no chance of anyone becoming addicted. From my understanding of addiction, it is like an allergic (or abnormal) response to the substance that enters the body. For some people their bodily reaction causes craving for more of the substance and then the person’s brain essentially gets rewired – now needing to consume more and more of that substance, despite the negative consequences of doing so. And the cycle repeats itself.
So, what can we do to help end the stigma associated with substance use in our communities? First, we can begin to view those who are struggling as our own children, our own brothers and sisters, and that how we treat them is a reflection of how we treat our own family. This disease of addiction knows no socio-economic barriers, it can affect us all. The kindness we extend to the stranger, the person that we feel tempted to label or judge, is the same kindness that we would extend members of our family. In many cases those who are really struggling didn’t have anyone who was showing them care and compassion and kindness when their use became problematic. They felt ostracized and marginalized. You probably don’t have to think too hard to come up with the name of someone you love who struggles with substance use, given that one in five Canadians experience addiction issues. Imagine everyone that you come across as this person and the last thing you would want to do would be to ostracize or alienate them.
Next, we can stop using labels to identify others. As I mentioned last week, we don’t accept labelling in terms of race, gender or sexual orientation, so we must stop labelling people who have substance use issues. They aren’t “deadbeats,” “potheads,” or “drunks.” They are people, just like anyone else, and they deserve the respect and dignity that we afford all other people in the communities in which we live.
And finally, we can speak up. These columns that I am writing this summer are part of the challenge I have for myself and for this community to start breaking down the walls that separate us and begin to build bridges to understand each other better. We all have a story to tell about our own substance use. Some are at one end of the spectrum and some are at the other, but regardless we must all accept one another without judgment. We need to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves and for those who aren’t well enough, yet. We need to speak up for those who feel that they don’t have a voice to let them know that they do. It is not how we treat those who are like us and believe what we believe that defines the strength of our community, it is how we work with and support those who are on the fringes, and who feel marginalized and oppressed, that truly defines us.
Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @HKLNDrugStrat and Facebook @HKLNDrugStrategy.
Nick Adams is the Media and Communications Worker for the Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, Northumberland Drug Strategy. Through a series of weekly columns, Nick will discuss how the Drug Strategy is reducing the harms and stigma around substance use in our communities and will offer a unique perspective to the various weekly topics by sharing his own personal experience.