By Jenna Drennen
“I am in recovery from addiction.” These words spark various reactions, depending on my audience. While navigating the many lessons and realizations I’ve gained throughout my recovery process, and the work I’ve done in the addiction treatment field, certain truths continue to resonate with me. As I’ve chosen to speak more frequently and openly about my journey through addiction and recovery, it has become abundantly clear how powerful our language can be in framing and potentially reframing our perceptions of reality. Words frequently thrown around such as “drunk,” “junkie,” or “tweaker” fuel the enduring stigma surrounding addiction, and the biases associated with this language are often deeply rooted within individuals, cultures, and institutions. Research has shown that addiction, clinically referred to as a “substance use disorder,” is more highly stigmatized than any other health condition. Rather than addressing substance use disorders as a public health crisis, we often approach addiction as a moral and criminal issue. The dehumanizing language associated with addiction fuels the notion that addiction is a choice, rather than a disease, and contributes to the pervasive sense of shame experienced by many people struggling with substance use disorders. The subsequent criminalization of substance-using behaviors only exacerbates addiction stigma and further marginalizes the people most in need of treatment, while creating additional barriers to accessing treatment and recovery.
Confronting and overcoming my shame surrounding my addiction proved difficult in early recovery. As I became more educated on the disease model of addiction, I began to recognize how labels given to people struggling with substance use disorders intentionally and unintentionally propagated shame-inducing stigmas, while solidifying the implicit cognitive biases many people, including myself, continued to hold. I often felt devalued or diminished because of my addiction, despite understanding that these biases were often oversimplified or completely inaccurate. Examining and working to modify my own biases and perceptions allowed me to begin to truly overcome the disempowering shame and guilt I carried. This transition served as the first step towards genuinely celebrating my recovery journey.
Before the dialogue surrounding addiction can truly shift, the notion that its origins stem from moral failings or lack of will power needs to be challenged both on a personal and societal level. It is estimated that more than 23 million Americans of all genders, races, and socio-economic backgrounds struggle with substance use disorders. Much like diseases such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, addiction is caused by a combination of biological, psychological, environmental, and behavioral factors. The disease model of addiction, supported by nearly every medical association including the American Medical Association, identifies substance use disorder as a chronic, sometimes relapsing, health condition and highlights the biological underpinnings of the disorder. This complex disease involves the compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences and operates by disrupting regions of the brain responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgment, and memory. Most addictive substances, such as alcohol or nicotine, cause the brain to release high levels of chemicals associated with pleasure and reward. The continued release of these chemicals causes pronounced structural changes in the systems of the brain linked to reward and motivation.
While a person’s initial decision to drink a beer or take prescription medication for pain is clearly an act of free will, and a conscious choice, someone who is predisposed to addiction due to a variety of biological, psychological, and environmental factors is much more susceptible to experience the profound changes to their brain’s neural chemistry and reward networks. As these physiological changes take effect, that initial concept of choice and will power becomes impaired. Genetic risk factors increase the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder by nearly 50%, and much like many other chronic illnesses, if left untreated, addiction becomes more severe and life-threatening. Although it has been established that maintaining a support network of family, friends, and peers aids in successful treatment outcomes, the stigma and shame surrounding addiction often create barriers to accessing appropriate treatment. When treatment is sought out, the disease is often advanced, requiring a higher level of care, a more complicated treatment path, and often results in less favorable outcomes maintaining long-term sobriety.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment, nor is there one linear path towards sustained recovery. However, several evidenced-based methods grounded in cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapy have proven most effective. Treatment options can include 12-step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, medication-assisted treatments, intensive outpatient therapy, partial hospitalization, or full residential programs of varying length. Regardless of the level of care a person with a substance use disorder chooses or has access to, the ultimate goal is to receive support and tools to establish and maintain long-term recovery.
The concept of recovery is often misinterpreted as sustained sobriety and the absence of active addiction. While these are indeed aspects of the recovery process, recovery usually encompasses so much more than these very basic components. Throughout the treatment process, those struggling with addiction often progress through a series of stages, guiding the changes they experience. Beginning with pre-contemplation and culminating in action and maintenance, this progression is inevitably slowed or even halted depending on the level of support an individual receives.
As I began my journey towards recovery, examining the biases and shame surrounding my addiction became crucial. In defining and re-defining what recovery meant to me, I took charge of my journey. As I began telling my story, I controlled the narrative and maintained the power to continue guiding the recovery process. I began to celebrate my recovery by fervently sharing all that it represented to me. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines recovery as a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential. In my case, I viewed my recovery from addiction as a journey towards finding physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being and growth. Gratitude and mindful existence guide my recovery process as I push myself to identify and strive towards the best version of myself while establishing a support network and set of tools that allow me to better navigate the journey. Rooted in community involvement and actively working to support others, my process has been self-directed, strength-based, and focused on empowerment, hope, and positive self-discovery. Shedding the shame I initially carried with me, I began to celebrate my recovery and consequently strengthened the foundation I built.
Without consistently devoting daily work to the basic tenets of our recovery, those of us in the recovery community inevitably shift towards complacency and risk relapse. The notion that avoiding regression necessitates constant forward momentum guides us towards the most self-actualized, honest version of ourselves. Developing “recovery capital” aids the process, as we work to identify cognitive-behavioral techniques that allow us to habitually break the patterns of isolation that so often accompany addictive behaviors. We teach ourselves how to ask for help and support when it’s needed and become more adept at identifying obstacles and barriers to positive change. We gain a greater understanding of what constitutes self-care and its fundamental place in our daily routines. Self-deception and denial flourish as active addiction progresses. Establishing a path towards sobriety requires a conscious turning towards honesty. As we practice this every day, it becomes instinctive and begins to penetrate all aspects of our lives. Consequently, individuals in recovery often maintain high levels of morality and integrity, while upholding confidence based in humility. As we work to discover and follow through on our life’s purpose, the depth of joy is often profound, and gratitude begins to penetrate all actions.
Throughout my recovery journey, I continue to challenge the deeply ingrained biases accompanying my addiction. While shame and guilt still emerge, I remind myself that the tools and strength I’ve developed to sustain long-term recovery wouldn’t have materialized without my preceding “rock-bottom.” The daily work of healing I engage in ensures these tools remain tuned. I often encounter confusion when expressing gratitude towards my addiction, but that addiction taught me who I am, and who I don’t want to be. My addiction turned me into a warrior and a survivor, and I carry each year of sobriety like a badge of honor. Reframing my addiction as a gift reminds me that from destruction comes renovation, often with a more solid foundation than the original structure. All too often, the voices of those struggling with substance use disorders are devalued or silenced, and enduring personal, societal, and institutional biases cannot be challenged until our stories are authentically represented and humanized. Embracing people-first, unified language calls attention to the true nature of addiction, while combating the pervasive sense of shame that so often accompanies substance use disorders. In sharing my story, I am controlling the narrative and choosing to celebrate every word of it.
If someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, contact the SAMHSA hotline at 1-800-662-HELP or visit samhsa.gov.
SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) provides a free and confidential 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year national helpline that offers information and services for individuals or family members facing addiction. They provide referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.
Jenna lives in Firestone with her husband, two kids, and a house full of animals. She enjoys, running, gardening, and climbing mountains in her spare time.