December 3, 2013

MAINE COMPASS: Social stigma of drug addiction creates roadblocks to recovery

Sharon Sagat-Stover

In a recent radio address, Gov. Paul LePage discussed the escalating number of babies born addicted to drugs. While I appreciate the governor’s willingness to bring this important issue to light, we differ in our approach to effective solutions.

Those of us who devote our lives to helping people with addictions recover believe that we have a moral obligation to help all of our neighbors live full, drug-free lives. We have seen firsthand the damage that substance abuse has inflicted on individuals, their families and the state of Maine, and we are dedicated to helping those suffering from the devastating effects of addiction.

The social stigma and fear of being ostracized and labeled — or thought of as “less than” — create persistent roadblocks for those seeking recovery from addiction. While I understand the frustration politicians and pundits feel about this growing problem, in my experience, early intervention and compassionate treatment are essential components to successful, sustained recovery.

Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. It destroys self-esteem, thrives on silence and shame, replaces hope with despair, and destroys lives. There are many faces to addiction, and those who are addicted are our mothers and fathers, our brothers and our sisters, and our neighbors. Addiction affects all of us, and is not limited or defined by socioeconomic status, age or gender.

Addicted women often suffer alone in silence rather than risk the threat of incarceration or the possibility of losing their children if they seek help. The shame of being labeled failures drives many away from treatment. The cultural depiction of addicts as immoral, broken and “less than” does a disservice not only to these suffering human beings who need help, but also to our culture, which struggles to address the growing problem of substance abuse and addiction.

In pragmatic terms, this means accepting addicts wherever they are in their journey to heal and recover. We must support, encourage and empower those seeking recovery, not judge, blame or condemn them. No one can be forced to recover — to abstain from use, yes, but recovery involves much more than mere abstinence; authentic and lasting recovery also requires a change in character, behaviors, attitudes and perspectives.

We cannot effectively address the societal problem of substance abuse unless we encourage individuals to seek treatment, and treatment will not be effective as long as we view those suffering from addiction as social pariahs. I hope that as we grapple for answers we do not add to the problem of addiction by forcing more people into the shadows.

The disease of addiction has no “cure,” and there is no single “right” way to recover. Those seeking relief can choose from a variety of options for healing; some of the more popular methods are group or individual outpatient counseling, a residential programs, 12-step or other self-help programs, or medication-assisted withdrawal and maintenance.

I am a women’s substance abuse case manager for the Maine Mothers Network, a program of Crisis & Counseling Centers and statewide partners. We help pregnant and parenting women build a substance-free future for themselves and their children. My clients are mothers who have not been able to obtain much-needed help because of common barriers to treatment, such as lack of child care and transportation. Our program provides in-home, targeted case management services, with a particular sensitivity to substance abuse and addiction. We meet weekly with our clients in order to ensure that they have access to whatever resources they need in order to be successful in recovery, and to equip them with the knowledge and skills required to become the sort of parent every child deserves.

One child born addicted to substances or alcohol is one too many. For me and the other professionals who see these moms every day, early treatment and prevention coupled with healthy social supports is our best chance to break the chains of addiction. Pregnant or parenting mothers struggling with addiction need to know they are not alone. Help is available to them by calling the Maine Mothers Network at 1-800-244-6431.

Sharon Sagat-Stover is a women’s substance abuse case manager at Crisis & Counseling Centers in Augusta.
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