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10 Reasons Not to Judge People Struggling With an Addiction

As a mental health and addictions counselor who has a mental illness myself, I am continually hurt by how our society treats addicts.

As a counselor I get told, “I have no sympathy because it was their choice to use.”

“We should be tougher on them. They belong in jail or prison. They don’t deserve your kindness.”

“They never change.”

“They always go back to using.”

“They’re a tough crowd. They’re mean.”

These responses are heartbreaking to me. I am continually hurt by the judgment our society places on people living with addiction.

My clients say things like, “They just see me as an addict, not a person.”

“My family introduces me as ‘My son, the addict.’ That’s all people see.”

“I’m grieving and I don’t know how to handle it. So I drink because I hurt too much. Then they treat me like a criminal and put me in prison. Prison is awful. You can’t understand how bad it is.”

“People assume I’m some sort of criminal. I’m actually a nice person. I care about other people. I’m smart. But all they see is that I use.”

I want to share 10 insights about addiction and mental health.

1. Addiction is a mental health crisis.

My clients are experiencing intense emotional pain and struggling to cope. Often, they have experienced trauma. Sometimes, addiction starts as a seemingly harmless social activity, like drinking with friends, but if it progresses to an addiction there will be emotional pain involved.

2. Addiction is often due to a lack of self-acceptance.

A teenager struggles to accept herself, so she starts using so that she will have a group of people who accept her. She doesn’t like herself so she starts using so that she will be a different person. She doesn’t accept herself so she struggles to find motivation to be healthy. Groups like AA work because they are accepting of people in recovery and teach people in recovery how to accept the people they are. Everyone deserves acceptance and empathy.

3. Being in jail or prison is traumatic.

In my experience, I have found that many people who have been to jail or prison have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their time there. People have flashbacks and nightmares about prison, and getting the message that you are only a criminal is deeply hurtful.

4. Everyone can relate to addiction.

I bet lots of people reading this article have struggled with an addiction to social media or some game you play on your phone. I struggle with addictions to carbs, Facebook, games, etc. I have also struggled with an addiction to self-harm. I think we can all relate to how addiction is powerful and can be difficult to break. It’s a battle.

5. Be careful about the way you describe someone in recovery.

Some people in recovery call themselves “addicts” since they feel like it is necessary to accept themselves. Other people find it hurtful to be labeled an addict, and say “I’m a person, not just an addict.” Other people like the term “recovering addict” and take pride in the word “recovery.”

6. Relapse doesn’t mean returning to square one.

As someone works on being sober, they may relapse, but over time they hopefully relapse less and less, and get back on track quicker each time. A relapse doesn’t mean they are back to where they were.

7. Don’t make assumptions.

My clients say things like, “Because I used heroin, people assume I was a prostitute. I never did that.” “Because I use, people don’t believe anything I say. I did try to hide my addiction, but I’m not a liar. I’m honest, but no one trusts me. It’s so hurtful.”

8. It’s hard for someone to turn their life around when no one gives them a chance.

Recovering addicts struggle to find a new healthy lifestyle, since companies refuse to hire felons and they experience judgment and coldness from other people. I see clients struggle and end up relapsing since they can’t seem to get a break.

9. It’s hard to cope with life when your only coping skill was using.

I often have clients tell me, “My only way to deal with stress is using. I don’t know what else to do.” Recovery always includes learning new ways to cope with life stress. Learning some coping skills can help someone turn their life around.

10. Recovery is often lonely.

It’s hard when someone gets sober but all of their friends still drink or use. Recovery means needing to find all new friends, and often they don’t know where to find them. AA meetings are OK but it’s often not enough.

How do you support someone who is in recovery?

1. Be kind and empathetic.

2. Accept them without judgment.

3. Invite them places where there will be no drugs or alcohol.

4. Help them feel like they’re not alone.

5. Show that you believe in them.

6. Help them find a job.

7. Show them sober living can be fun.

It’s amazing how acceptance and kindness can impact someone in recovery. We can all make a difference this way.

Photo by Jake Melara on Unsplash