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The Stigma of Addiction

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#1 Michael Stuart Kelly

Michael Stuart Kelly


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Posted 06 December 2005 - 09:39 PM

The Stigma of Addiction
by Michael Stuart Kelly

(The following article was submitted to SoloHQ in August 2005 shortly after a public scandal occurred over an article about alcoholism was posted, where the author called the site owner an alcoholic. My article was accepted – very reluctantly accepted, and I ended up asking that it not be run. The atmosphere at the time was not good for the ideas presented here and I wanted to present a more technical article first. I did that. I think it started something good. Now the present article can be made public and get its message across. This particular message for Objectivists and others with dependency problems – and those who love these people – is a vitally important one.)

(This article is repeated in the Articles section of this site.)

* * *

Nothing gets my dander up more than seeing someone kick a person who is down. And this is the nature of attaching a stigma to alcoholism and addiction. Kick the one who is down.

My intention is not to give an exhaustive treatment on substance abuse and dependency here. I fully intend to give a nice hard kick back – a kick in the name of all who are down right now, of those who are lost in a quagmire of lack of control and do not know what to do about it – but who want out. And those who have risen, but who are still fragile.

You see, there is a great deal of misunderstanding on this issue by Objectivists and almost no Objectivist guidance on what to do about it. I have seen too much to ignore it. There are oodles of you out there. All hiding. I was one yesterday. You know why you are hiding?

One very strong reason is that Objectivists say you are evil. They say that you are morally bankrupt. They say that you are somehow metaphysically inferior. They say you have no willpower. They say your problem is self-inflicted. They say you chose to be that way. They say you whine. Hell, Ayn Rand said you are an obscenity.


This is a very complicated and serious issue that deserves more than a one-size-fits-all bromide – a stigma.

In my experience, I see that most often when a person is embroiled in some kind of substance abuse and dependency, he played with fire and a monster grew within him that had nothing to do with choosing to be like that. That monster is a capacity of the human condition, not a self-inflicted wound. It has many roots, including biochemical propensities, that have nothing to do with volition.

Once I sat back and watched a huge misunderstanding over alcoholism grow between people on SoloHQ I had grown to love. I saw good intentions all round turn sour and I saw people bitterly lining up on both sides of an issue that to me was a non-issue. What helped set the climate of this misunderstanding was the public celebration of the first six months clean of Sergio, a person author, James Kilbourne, was in love with. “Clean” in recovery jargon means not using the crap you are addicted to.

As I watched everything unfold, trying to make peace in the wings and frankly, with a breaking heart, I could not get the image of this person out of my mind. Here everybody was talking essentially about a stigma, about whether to call a person an alcoholic in public or not, when an actual addict who had been extensively exposed and discussed by everybody was pushed over to the side.

I stayed out of the conflict at that time because I was much more interested in the addict than the stigma. So what about the addict? Did anyone give any thought whatsoever to what Sergio thought or felt during all of this? He most definitely had the support of someone who loved him and apparently a good recovery group. But his most intimate problem was put up on a public forum for all to look at and talk about, then it was pushed over to the side, and then his very real problem began to be treated as if it were nothing. Then an insult. An offense. A stigma.

I kept thinking that I dearly hoped that all this did not tempt him to relapse. That was the real issue on my mind. That was and is the crucial dependency issue. The rest is merely more crap about stigma.

Frankly, I bear this stigma myself. I have grown a hide thicker than an elephant about it. As people now know, I happen to be an alcoholic and a crack cocaine addict – not practicing for years, thank goodness.

Some people make light of addicts and alcoholics. (From this point on, when I refer to addiction I also include alcoholism.) Some always will. Well they can make light of what inner resources are needed to overcome addictions all they want. I will not. I know what it takes. I let them play if they must, even if it is indirectly at my expense.

I don’t mind so much because I know they simply don’t know what they are talking about. My thought here is, “May they never have to face something like what I did. May my own enemies never have to face something like that.”

But what about the people like Sergio out there? What about those who are fragile and trying to stay on their feet? What about those who are still using and abusing and hiding?

Objectivism is a philosophy for becoming a hero. A rational hero. Heroes are looked up to. So let me be very clear on this. No one will become a hero for getting out of a mess like addiction. You cannot expect anyone to look up to you and say, “I want to be like that,” simply because you stopped getting wasted. They will not. I certainly am no hero for doing that. I did what I had to do. It was excruciatingly difficult and painful. I consider myself more of a survivor than anything else.

But is there virtue in the struggle? There most definitely is. Starting with the choice to live. Not automatically wanting to live, like most people have built into their subconscious. Choosing. A serious choice. In your face and you can't ignore it. That is what serious addicts have to face.

I dare the reader to try that choice sometime, then sit back and watch others belittle his need to do it. It makes you mad as all get out. Then you remind yourself that they do not know what you do. That makes them blind. They cannot see that the possibility of falling into addiction is simply part of the human condition. It could happen to them or their loved ones. Ignoring it and belittling it is not a virtue, like so many think it is. It is simply ignoring it and belittling it.

Objectivists do that a lot. They take a tragic problem and turn it into a stigma. It is time for this crap to stop.

I have been criticized for proclaiming a little too loudly and a little too repeatedly that I have had these problems. There is a reason I have so proclaimed, though. I need to cut through the stigma and get through to the addict. I need to cut through the bullshit. I need to get through to addicted Objectivists – and any other addict who is listening – who wants to stop.

My reason for mentioning it so much has nothing at all to do with most of the people who hear me. There is a personal procedure I adopt. It does not come from some "therapy culture" or any other euphemism for superficiality. (Say what you will. Boy, did I ever need those therapy groups to survive! I almost died – literally.) It comes from my own reasoned decision. I only recommend it to those who feel the same, not as a moral commitment.

I don't know how to repay those who helped me when I needed it. How would you do it, dear reader? What would you give to a person who has already recovered his own life for helping you to recover yours? If you take morality seriously, which I do, that is a very heavy question.

One who is embroiled in addiction usually tries to hide it. Those who do not understand usually brand it with a stigma (which is why I am kicking back), and that is one of the main reasons for the secrecy. They do not want to be the butt of a stigma. They already don’t think straight, but who the hell does want to be the butt of a stigma?

You know what the practical result is? The people who so desperately need help simply do not seek it. They hide their problem.

Do I repeat? Well the behavior of those who scorn addiction does too.

The only way to stop serious addiction is to get help. That is a fact. This is so important that I will say it again, not for the scorners this time, but for the addicts. The only way to stop serious addiction is to get help. In most cases, it is nearly impossible to do it alone.

You want to know what I do to repay those who helped me? Those whom I cannot repay personally? Those for whom no payment is possible? I pass it on to those who need this kind of help.

I let them know that one can overcome addiction, come back to the land of the living and still hold their head up and reach for the stars. I merely let them know that I have been where they are and getting out of addiction can be done. That their situation is not hopeless. You have no idea what seeing this gesture in public means to one who cannot think straight because he is strung out.

But I do.

I have e-mails from others (which I will not discuss other than to say that they exist) who have approached me stating that my stance has given them courage to seek and/or maintain the help they need because they are trying to fight this problem themselves. That makes me feel absolutely great, to tell the truth. Really, really good inside. I am helping defeat something that hurt me terribly. I am helping to impede some needless destruction caused by addiction in other lives. Even if it is not successful this time around with one or another, a seed gets planted.

And do you know what I want them to do for me later down the road? Once they are in control of their lives again? Nothing. I merely want them to pass it on in their own manner. That, and only that, is my sincere wish for repayment. I am absolutely sure that those to whom I owe so much feel exactly the same way.

Is this sappy? To an outsider, maybe. So what? To an insider, it is often the difference between life and death. I do not expect the outsider to understand. The insiders know who they are. And I am one of them.

By the way, this is not something you do, then forget about. You have to be careful to avoid relapsing, but that is a whole other can of worms for another time.

Let me also stress that my attitude is not the philosophical equivalent of altruism. This is merely one way of dealing with an issue that is very real and tragic to some and laughable to others. I deal with it this way precisely because it is so laughable to others. To those in hiding, let me be loud and clear. There is no shame in needing help. I was one who needed it and I got out of the mess I was in and grew strong because I got help and used it.

Let my example light your way back.

I state loudly: I am not ashamed that I once desperately needed help with my addictions – and accepted it. You need not be either.

To those who laugh and scorn, I still say that I prefer your attitude to seeing you discover what this is all about on your own hide. I will proudly bear the stigma of sappy if need be. I already bear so many other stigmas. It is not those who scorn whom I am trying to reach, anyway. A good mind that recovers from addiction is a good mind. And that is a value.

But don’t you who like to laugh dare kick someone who is down in front of me. Sneer and hurl your stigmas and you will get it all right back in your face.

I used to have a friend in the underworld in São Paulo (I have lacked sense over the years and have had friends in the most unlikely places) who used to say, "When you see a man in the gutter, go step on him and step hard." He used to illustrate, pretending to stomp, and his face showed extreme hatred when he did.

Is that what Objectivism is all about to some of you? Is kicking someone who is down your idea of being rational? Throwing out stigmas and sneering? Well that sure is easy. Why not a bigger opponent? I have an idea. Don’t kick them. Try kicking me.

In my heart, though, I do not think that most of you are this way anymore than I am. We fight an intellectual battle in the name of Objectivism. I see much virtue in jagged language and harsh attitudes, but my own fight is against strong enemies in life, not the weak and debilitated. That is for cowards. I see much virtue in extending a hand to help one who has fallen get on his feet, if he shows that he wants to get up.

Where does it say in Objectivist ethics that helping another get back on his feet is evil? That you must kick him? That you must brand him with a stigma? I have not read anything like that, but I have seen much. And enough is enough. This crap is stupid and cowardly.

In Brazil, my former father-in-law used to have a quote from the Arabian culture on his office wall that I love. Since I am going from Portuguese to English in my mind, there might be an English version with other words than the ones I give here. It goes something like this:

I dearly wish for long life and health for my enemies so that they can behold my victory standing on their feet.

Well so do I. I do not want to be a fly swatter. I want strong enemies. That is part of what fighting for reason is about to me. Not belittling addicts and the efforts of others to understand, help and find cures for addiction.

Objectivists can believe it or not, but often there is a strong enemy within a person's own mind. Its nature is varied and it is not always volitional. Oftentimes it can be overcome with volition. Oftentimes not. That is just another type of battle that has to be fought with reason. It will not be won by a person who is addicted belittling himself. Or being kicked. Or being forced into hiding from a stigma. It needs rational understanding, just like anything else important in human life.

An addict can become a hero only after he has recovered from active addiction. An Objectivist addict can recover from addiction only after he has stopped hiding and started dealing with the problem. In Objectivism, there is much work in this area that needs to be done.

Let me start by kicking stigma in the balls.

To those of you with dependency problems who are afraid of this stigma, the stigma of addict or alcoholic, let me give you a piece of advice. Stop being afraid. It is good to bear it if you are seriously recovering. It is a wonderful people filter. People who demean you because of your condition are people who will cause you needless headaches in other areas of life. Usually controlling jerks. Be glad to be rid of them. Turn the page and rejoice. There are just too many good people out there – even Objectivists.


#2 RagJohn



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Posted 24 December 2010 - 11:42 AM

Addicition to alchohol or drugs is not going to happen to me, because I feel just fine about my normal mental state,and peer pressure never made me do anything that I didn't want to do. Indeed, it is incapable of stopping me from doing what I want to do. So, while I am willing to have the origins of addiction explained to me, I very seriously doubt that I am going to not "judge" about the failure to recognize the sheer waste and non-necessity of it all. There's lots of other things to do, ya know? I think that it's basically a form of suicide, without the desperation/frustration necessary to go all the way "out", or the discipline needed to fix the problem that the user is using drugs to "run from" in the first place. I await any "enlightenment" that can be delivered here.

#3 Michael Stuart Kelly

Michael Stuart Kelly


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Posted 24 December 2010 - 06:44 PM

I await any "enlightenment" that can be delivered here.



I seriously doubt it.


Know thyself...

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