I am in a rare position of having intimate knowledge of all areas of the addiction spectrum. Following our shocking episode, we entered the nightmarish reality of hard-core opioid addiction. My husband was shamed and would not speak to anyone about the addiction for almost a year, not even his own mother. I, on the other hand, started talking to anyone who would listen right away and it was shocking what I learned; every single person had their own story and a close relation with someone affected by the opioid epidemic whether it was my hairdresser, my lawyer, my doctor, or the lady at the check-out line. It was hard to miss that each of these individuals spoke in a hushed voice and expressed intense shame and only shared their story after I had shared my own.
The problem with shame and keeping quiet is that this action, or inaction, is contributing to the opioid epidemic and resulting overdose deaths. Miriam Greenspan, an internationally known psychotherapist published author, and mother of a heroin addict wrote a convincing article on this point called, Letting Them Die: The Stigma Of Heroin Addiction And The Expanding Epidemic. Here she points out, “Addiction is a disease. That’s what the science tells us. But culturally, addiction is still largely viewed as a visible stamp of depravity.” The point of her article is that Silence=Death, and that we all need to be vocal and share our stories if we are allowed.
The sting of stigma related to opioid dependency came from the most unlikely place for me; a local bookstore. I view bookstores as the dispensaries of knowledge and truth upholding our First Amendment Rights allowing for the dispersion of a wide array of viewpoints without discrimination or censorship. However, I approached a bookstore for a book signing locally and was advised to take my book signing to an addiction center or recovery meeting as their venue was not the “right fit” for this subject matter.
Countless recent scientific studies notated in my book clearly demonstrate that acupuncture and herbs are powerful tools readily available that can circumvent the downward spiral of opioid addiction. Too me this is important information that should be made available openly. I can only imagine that the bookstore management envisioned people shooting-up outside of their fine establishment on the day of the book signing and disheveled homeless people flocking to the store. What they did not envision was the line of fine citizens desperate for answers to a pervasive problem that is affecting all of us, including their upstanding patrons and customers.
Another shocker came when one of my patients stated, “I sure hope your clinic does not start looking like a methadone clinic after your book comes out.” Apparently, she had some preconceptions of what a healing center that addresses dependency looks like. Little did she know the addicts were already walking among us? She said she did not want to keep coming to my clinic if she had to hang out with druggies; I could not respond to her as the notion was t so ludicrous. Another time, I was at a meeting at a church and was introduced to a gentleman as the author of a book about opioid dependency. He stated that it was an interesting topic, but not something that was prevalent in his community; little did he know that two of his fellow church congregation members sitting at his table were raising their grandchildren due to circumstances resulting from opioid addiction.
Alternatively, I can recall my husband returning from a rehab center after visiting his son commenting that the residents all looked like they should be in an ivy-league college, not a drug rehabilitation center. As Ms. Greenspan points out in her article, “The new face of heroin is young, well-educated, and white.” The idea of addiction as a disease has made some cultural headway precisely because we have seen the addicts and they are us.” It is vital that we understand that this is a treatable disease; like all diseases, there are acute, moderate, and chronic states; individuals and family members affected by opioid use disorder should not be shamed into silence. It is not a “fun” subject, but the only way that the general public becomes aware of the intricacies and treatment options available is to be brave enough to talk about and disseminate the facts, especially the facts that will help to break the deafening stigma of addiction.