Fighting stigma

It’s striking that when people talk about how dealing with substance abuse — either their own or a relative’s — they almost invariably use the word stigma.

It’s the same word that people use when they talk about children or siblings with special needs.

It’s embarrassing. It’s a marker of difference — and not only being different from, but also of being lesser than. It’s a stain. It marks not only the person but the entire family.

It’s almost as if it is a moral failure.

But it isn’t. It’s biology. It’s biochemistry. It’s pretty much the luck of the draw.

It’s not as if those two things — drug addiction and special needs — are the same, of course. When it comes to special needs, there is no choice involved at all. Children all are born with personalities and chemistries and DNA and genes; they all learn from their environment, and no two children, not even siblings, are born into the same environment.

There is a huge range of special needs, as the Sinai Schools tells us. If they are educated properly, with a sensitively tailored education, some children with special needs go on to outgrow them, to live lives made unusual by the individualized care they were given but that are otherwise entirely neurotypical. And then other children, the ones with more profound needs, grow up to be able to do far more and to feel far more loved and understood than otherwise would have been possible.

But often parents do not want to bring their children to Sinai because they’re afraid of the stigma. They don’t want to have to admit to the need for special education, even when that education is a lifeline.

Sinai fights hard to overcome that stigma; with each success, with each graduate, with each student’s story, it moves toward that goal.

Now, we learn, the same stigma envelopes and isolates people with substance abuse problems. It is important to understand that addiction is a biochemical condition. Often — increasingly — people become addicted to opioids because they’d been prescribed pain medication, maybe overprescribed pain medication, and have found themselves unable to stop taking it. (Although it is an increasing problem, it’s not a new one, as Eugene O’Neill told us, at great length, in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the fictionalized story of his own mother’s morphine addiction.)

At other times, as Elana Forman powerfully describes, drug addiction comes out of a deep emptiness, a search for happiness and fulfillment, and often accompanies other emotional problems.

Drug addictions are not the sign of immorality or weakness, but of the combination of biology — some people are more likely to become addicted to the same drugs than other people — and circumstance.

If only we could help reduce the stigma, we could help reduce the problem. No one wants to fail in school. No one wants to struggle with addiction. No one wants to be crushingly unhappy. We should work to remove the barriers that make people unwilling to admit to their problems and thus be able to work to solve them.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)