Silence, Secrecy, Shame & Stigma

Posted by Michael Buttacy on 11th Nov 2022

Silence, Secrecy, Shame & Stigma

As many of us know, addiction is no respecter of persons. It affects the old and the young and everyone in between. Although many of us are aware of the problem of addiction, a far majority of us don’t know what to do with this reality. This creates unhealthy dynamics or responses in major social settings, which can, and often does, feed into addictive generating families, social systems, and even churches.

Having worked with those battling with addiction for almost a decade now, I have seen that devastating toll it can take on the individuals, their family, friends, and loved ones. Through my experiences, I have seen that there are four factors we must address within our families, churches, and communities if we want to turn the tide on this epidemic. We must address the Silence, Secrecy, Shame, and Stigma that addiction breeds.

Silence is the first issue we must address. Addiction grows in darkness and silence feeds the addictive cycle. Consider walking into a room and in the middle of it was a sleeping baby. We know the baby is there and we are doing everything we can to not “Wake” it and have to deal with the screams of a tired child. But why not move the child to his or her room and let the child sleep comfortably in their own space. Instead, we quietly unload the dishwasher, wait to make dinner, turn the TV down really low all in hopes of not disturbing the child.

Many people take this same approach with addiction. Instead of talking about it, they remain silent and build their world around not “waking” the addiction baby. This is true for both the addict and their loved ones. The reality is, this issue will not go away. Being silent only feeds that addiction and creates stress and anxiety. Talking about the issue exposes the reality of it and builds our motivation to embrace meaningful change. Ephesians 5:13 says “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible-and everything that is illuminated becomes a light”. Talking about the issue opens the door and that lets the light in. That light gives hope by letting us know that we are not alone! If you or a loved one needs help, make a call, there are people ready to help you.

The next issue that families and church’s needs to address is secrecy. Imagine you have a scar on your arm you don’t want anyone to see. Before you go out of your home you do everything you can to cover it up. This takes many forms. You can wear long sleeves, cover it with makeup, and make sure you attend events in the evenings where no one can see your features in the light. If a neighbor knocks on your door you run around the house to make sure all the things you do to hide your scar are hidden, and even go change your clothes before you answer the door. This is what many people do who are dealing with addiction.

They hide it from anyone or anything outside of their home. They make excuses when their loved one doesn't show up to important appointments. Make phone calls to their jobs to let them know they’re “sick” with the flu and will not be in. We strive to maintain an image instead of dealing with the reality of the situation. And these "image" worries are oftentimes encouraged by our culture. I have heard stories from families those spiritual leaders have told them to find their loved one help because they were embarrassing the church. How ridiculous is that! When the image or appearance of something becomes more important than the addiction you are enabling the person to continue in their ways. You are actually supporting the habit by covering it up. This creates a safety net around the addict and typically makes the addictive behaviors worse and ultimately creates isolation. Keeping up an image is exhausting and lonely. You will never truly let anyone in because you are scared they will judge you. Hebrews 4:13 says: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Why hide what God already knows? Asking for help requires us to speak the truth. If you do, you might just be surprised at what you'll find.

Shame is another issue that can actually feed the addictive cycle. It’s easy for people on the outside to call those in addiction worthless, weak, and a slew of other horrible terms. But often times we forget how powerful words can be when we are slinging them until they hit us. Words have the ability to crush our spirit and make us think we will never change. Take ten minutes to look through social media. Read any story of a drunk driver or addict. Skip the news article and read the comments. It’s a pit of hate. People are excited to be the judge and jury of anything. They call the people from the news article horrible worthless people that should be put to death.

Let me tell you one reality: No one who is addicted is excited about being an addict. They don’t write letters to their friends telling them how awesome being broke and spending all their money on getting high is. I can’t tell you how many people have told me when they sobered up that they were never really happy when they were using. They don’t want to be in situation they are in. So, if the addict isn’t happy and already feels little self-worth and that is coupled with hurtful words from people who are supposed to love them, what do you think the outcome is? The outcome is continuing the same pattern over and over again until you dig a pit too deep to climb out of because the world has formed an identity for them. But each and every one one of us are only one or two decisions away from being in that same position. It is only by the grace of God that many are not.

What was Jesus approach to the women at the well? Did He point out all the horrible things about her and then condemn her? No! He lifts her up and speaks life into her. Knowing where she has been, He led her to where she needs to go. When we feel shame, no matter what the circumstance, it makes us want to quit. It gives us a feeling of worthlessness. Matthew 18:12 talks of how Jesus leaves the 99 to find the one. But when we allow shame to control us, we are effectively telling ourselves that we're not worthy of being the one that needs to be found. The truth is that we should never shame, humiliate, or make of joke of an addict or their loved ones because we demean and insult the forgiveness and power of Christ when we degrade that which He is ready and willing to make clean. God can make all things new.

Finally, I want to talk about stigma. And wow does this one carry a lot of weight. A stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. The Betty Ford Clinic shared an article called the stigma of addiction on their website and it reads:

For generations, this combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and other drug addiction in America. Today, the stigma of addiction is seen as a primary barrier to effective addiction prevention, treatment and recovery efforts at the individual, family, community and societal levels. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need.

The ultimate irony here? Many of the negative, stigmatizing behavioral symptoms associated with… addiction tend to diminish and abate when appropriately addressed and managed in recovery.

At the individual and family levels, alcohol and drug addiction is traditionally considered a private matter, something only whispered about. Even when the symptoms … are obvious to all around, individuals and families too often avoid seeking help for fear of even acknowledging the problem. This is one reason only one in 10 Americans with a substance use disorder receives professional care for addiction.

We talk about self-harm, political issues, medical issues, cancer, domestic violence, and hundreds of other “hot button” issues, but addiction still carries a stigma. It is up to you and me to help erase this idea by not being afraid to talk about it. Addiction is real and it is taking the lives of countless men and women. It is leaving holes in the lives of their families and causing uncounted trauma in those who have been impacted by addiction. Remember there are thousands of men, women, boys and girls who graduate every year from Adult and Teen Challenge and go on to live successful lives. Every one of them carried the stigma of addiction. Now they carry the title of overcomer. If they can do it, by the grace of God you and your loved one can too.

I want to encourage you that if you want to fight against addiction you MUST expose the silence, secrecy and shame of addiction and erase the stigma of it. You need to reach out and ask for help. There are so many who willingly to stand with you. The men and women who work for Adult Teen Challenge do it because we want to see you find lasting hope. We believe that your loved one is not Bob the alcoholic, but that they can become Bob a new creation – their lives can be transformed through the power of Jesus Christ. We fight for those dealing with addiction and life controlling issues. We fight so you can remember the hopes and dreams you all had for one another.

So, your legacies are more than being an addict or the loved one of an addict, but people who are adopted into the family of God and who have found lasting purpose, hope, and peace. Why? Because we believe that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come. Because you are all worth the sacrifice that Christ made on your behalf and God is actively pursuing you. All it takes to start this journey is a prayer and a call. Pick up the phone, get on the computer, and reach out.