Coping With the Stigmas of Addiction and Prison
Many conditions and situations carry an unfortunate stigma: poverty, mental illness, addiction and going to prison are not least among them. Those who have not experienced these situations or who have no relationship to anyone plagued by the disease of addiction are often quick to judge. Addiction, in particular, carries a stigma associated with weakness, poor moral character and a lack of willpower. Couple that with the fact that many addicts end up in prison for drug-related crimes and you have a double whammy of judgment and stigma. Anyone who has been to prison, regardless of the reason, must carry that burden forever.
Stigma is a terrible thing to cope with; all addicts understand this. They can describe how people look at them differently, that others fail to trust them for no other reason than their disease, and they know that many people look on them as being deeply flawed. Dealing with that stigma makes it difficult to get into recovery, to admit to having a problem, and to find the courage to get help. Coming out of prison only makes this worse. If you have served time and you face a battle with addiction, there are steps you can take to cope with the unavoidable stigma.
- Get treatment. This point cannot be overstated. The only way you will conquer your addiction is to get professional help. If you have already received treatment, maybe while incarcerated, that does not mean you are at the end of the road. The pressure of the stigma placed upon you by others is a powerful force and one that may contribute to a relapse. Keep up with treatment, even if it means just attending an occasional support group meeting. If you are really struggling, see a trained drug counselor or therapist for some sessions. When you are fully in recovery, the stigma will start to seem less important and will be less damaging.
- Fight feelings of shame and doubt. This may be easier said than done, but it is crucial that you do not let yourself feel the things that represent how others view you. Just because the public at large thinks you are lazy, weak-willed, morally bankrupt, and shameful does not mean that you are. You are what you want to be. You must create the person you want to be, regardless of what others say and think. Always remember that addiction is a disease; it is not a personal weakness or flaw.
- Socialize. It may be tempting to hide away after getting out of prison. Fear of what others will think and what they will say about you is enough to make you want to stay inside and lock the doors, but this is not good for you or your recovery. Isolation will only increase your negative feelings. Be brave and get back out there. Go out with sober friends, go to church and participate in Bible study, get involved in social groups, and consider doing volunteer work. All of these things will take you out of yourself and your dark thoughts and put your energy into more positive activities.
- Join a support group. If you are not already a member of a support group for addicts, join one now. Attending the meetings is a powerful way to stay clean and to take comfort from others who understand your experiences. You may even meet some addicts who have also spent time in prison. Seeing that you are not alone is helpful, because carrying the stigma of addiction as well as one for incarceration can make you feel like you are the only one. If you are new to sobriety or newly out of prison, you will also be able to find inspiration from others at these meetings. People who are years sober still attend meetings and can give you a guide and a model for how to live your life.
- Work on your relationships. In your former life as an addict, you probably did some serious damage to your personal relationships. Going to prison certainly did not help. Now is the time to rebuild those relationships and to regain the trust of the ones you love. When you have them fully back on your side, you can face down any stigma.