Beyond the Stigma: A Guide to Navigating Addiction & Recovery

January 18, 2024

4 mins

Jackie Rosu


4 mins We live in a society that has created a massive stigma around substance use disorder (SUD) and those who suffer from it. The stigma of drug and alcohol misuse is a set of negative cultural beliefs and misconceptions that further add to the complexity and difficulty of navigating a successful recovery plan.

Navigating the recovery process can be difficult for both the person suffering from the disease as well as their friends, families, and loved ones. Many have no idea where to begin despite the wide range of resources and tools, both on the internet and at the local community level. The entire process can feel overwhelming.

We live in a society that has created a massive stigma around substance use disorder (SUD) and those who suffer from it. The stigma of drug and alcohol misuse is a set of negative cultural beliefs and misconceptions that further add to the complexity and difficulty of navigating a successful recovery plan.

This article will provide an overview of that stigma and the harm it causes those suffering from SUD, as well as actionable steps you can take as a loved one to support and encourage their recovery journey through educated and compassionate communication.

Understanding the Stigma of Addiction

It is important to understand that while common, the stigma around substance use disorder is not based on facts or scientific research but rather on inaccurate, outdated, and largely unfounded opinions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), some of the most common stigmas associated with substance use disorder include thinking the person suffering is dangerous, incapable of managing treatment, or responsible for causing the disease. The stigma causes those who are not directly suffering from SUD (friends, family, even strangers) to feel emotions such as fear, anger, or disgust against those who are suffering rather than a feeling of sympathetic compassion that is commonly shown with other illnesses.

Avoid Harmful Language

One of the easiest ways to avoid contributing to the stigma of addiction is to be intentional with the language you use. Reframing harmful words like “junkie” or “alcoholic” with less accusatory alternatives that don’t carry the same negative connotations improves the perceptions of those with SUD. Studies show that using negative language can even impact the quality of care received from medical providers by creating biases that lead to inequitable care and poor outcomes.

Focus On The Person, Not Their Illness

When speaking to a person suffering from substance use disorder who is in the recovery process, it is important to focus on their inherent value as a person rather than letting their illness define or dehumanize them. This can best be achieved by focusing on person-first language when speaking to them. Person-first language puts them first and their illness second. It frames the disorder as something they suffer from rather than assigning blame or making it the central part of their identity.

How to Talk About Recovery with Loved Ones

Substance use disorder is often viewed from the perspective of the sufferer being at fault. As such, talking about addiction can be difficult. Many people in the United States have no idea that substance use disorder is the direct result of chemical changes in the brain, making the usage of those suffering from SUD compulsive and incredibly difficult or even impossible to stop without proper support and medical care. This chemical dependency is why addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease by the NIDA.

Before speaking to your loved one about their illness, try to learn as much as possible about substance use disorder and the recovery process from reliable, research-based sources. It is important, however, to understand that no matter how much research you conduct, it is impossible to know everything about your loved one’s specific experience. This is because SUD is not a “one size fits all” condition, and it exists on a spectrum. Every individual will have a unique story and recovery experience.

Instead, use the resources available as general guidelines to help you communicate and relate more effectively with your loved ones. To assist with this, Never Alone Recovery has created a free eBook, Surviving Your Loved One’s Addiction, which provides a comprehensive guide full of actionable tools designed to teach you how to talk about recovery with your loved ones while taking care of yourself.

Listen and Set Clear Boundaries

Watching a loved one go through the throes of substance use disorder can be exhausting and even make you feel disconnected from the person that they used to be. It is important to always listen and treat them as someone you love and care about rather than an extension of the disease. Every conversation does not need to be about their addiction or recovery, and you want to avoid making them feel as if you’re constantly checking up on them or expecting the worst.

The person you love is still there, and they have a disease. That being said, you must set clear boundaries and stand up for yourself and your needs. It is impossible to help them on their recovery journey while neglecting yourself.

An effective tool for communicating boundaries with loved ones suffering from SUD is the usage of “I” statements. These types of statements focus on you, your feelings, and your experiences rather than on what the other person has failed to do. Boston University Ombuds created a useful worksheet full of exercises and examples on “I” statements that can be used to help you communicate more clearly and create opportunities for resolution through constructive dialogue.

Navigating Through Recovery

If you or your loved one struggles to navigate their recovery journey, call us today at 844-365-4445. Never Alone Recovery has a team of addiction recovery consultants and provides free drug rehab placement services that handle the stress of finding high-quality care. Our core mission is to offer unyielding support and provide a compassionate environment for those suffering from substance use disorder, as well as their loved ones. In addition to this article, we have a library of online resources and a 100% free online support group that meets weekly. No matter where you are in your recovery journey, always remember that you’re never alone.

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