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The Double Standard of Addiction

You know the story. You see movie stars do it. You see professional athletes do it. And more and more often, you see prominent politicians do it.

They have a run-in with the law, are caught in a humiliating public incident or use horrendously poor judgment and say something totally inappropriate and out of character. Everyone knows this is not normal. Something has gone wrong.

When they finally face the music, the movie star, athlete or politician (or their spokesperson) admits what everyone already suspects. That’s right…a substance abuse issue.

So after an apology, it’s off to an expensive rehab facility with a promise that he or she will come back and try harder. The movie star’s fans post supportive comments on Facebook and Twitter. Teammates of the athlete speak up and point out the athlete’s community activities and leadership qualities. Colleagues of the politician talk about his long history of public service.

If the celebrity comes back and stays on the straight and narrow and makes a go of recovery, everyone says they are an inspiration. Their courage is amazing.

Now let’s look at a different story….

You see your neighbor’s son heading to work one day. He’s a personable kid who likes to party a bit, but got through high school with decent grades. He goes on to enroll in college and gets a job to cover his expenses.

Maybe he gets hurt at work or he rides a motorcycle and crashes one day when the driver of an automobile pulls out in front of him. It’s serious enough to put him in the hospital.

The neighbor boy goes through a few painful surgeries, followed up with treatment that includes pain killers — Percocet or maybe even Demerol or Oxycotin.

Soon he finds himself needing the painkillers for more than just the injury. He uses all of his refills, then borrows some from friends, and ultimately steals a few from his grandfather who has cancer. Slowly he has become addicted. He MUST have those pills.

When he can no longer get refills or buy the pills on the street, he does what he swore he would never do. He buys some heroin — surprised that it’s a fraction of the cost of the pills. He tries it at first and then things start to spiral out of control. He gets caught inside a house in broad daylight. He broke in to get pills or money from a home he thought was empty.

Now when your neighbor boy faces the music, we don’t hear about his leadership or public service. There are no fans to post supportive comments. Instead of a support group, the community turns against him and his family when they read about the arrest. “What’s wrong with those people?” we ask. “I can’t believe he went to school with my children.”

We are forgiving of the celebrity, but not of our neighbor. Addiction has a stigma that is hard to shake. Today there’s a double standard — an ordinary person can’t fall victim to the disease of addiction, but a celebrity can. We forgive the celebrity, and vilify our neighbor.

One of the long-term goals of Meridian HealthCare is to eliminate addiction. But until we can eliminate it, we have to treat it.

When someone enters treatment (recovery), he or she needs a chance to make it back — whether they’re a celebrity or the person down the street. It is a very, very tough thing to do. Being vilified makes it that much more difficult.

It’s not our job to eliminate the stigma attached to addiction. That will happen slowly over time. But the next time you see a person in recovery, remember to give him or her at least some of the credit and support you would give to the celebrity.