No More Shame, No More Silence
Shame and silence—without them, addiction couldn’t survive. Without them, addiction couldn’t thrive, couldn’t hide, couldn’t continue its deadly march forward, consuming and killing our children in droves.
A chronic disease of the brain, addiction—like other brain diseases—affects behaviors in a way that often make it look like, and feel like, a disgrace. So our reflexive response when faced with this disease is often driven by crushing, soul-eating, self-defeating emotion. Fear of blame, fear of our failures being exposed and judged, fear of embarrassment and disrepute. Shame for the things The Addict wearing our beloved child’s face has said or done. Or what we’ve done or said or thought ourselves. But no disease should be doomed to silence by all this additional, heavy weight.
Addiction is a disease—a complex and unpredictable confluence of environment and biology, which, like so many other diseases, is often seemingly random about whom it attacks. Someone who takes a prescription medication for a toothache or drinks wine with dinner may or may not become addicted; someone whose diet is heavy on french fries may or may not have high cholesterol; someone who regularly hits the gym may or may not have high blood pressure. Some people say addiction is a choice, which is where the burden of shame comes in. So let’s put that notion to rest: even when we try to live a life that is healthy and perfect, we’re human. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all done things we later regret. And we’ve all had a moment where sheer luck intervened between a behavior and a result, a moment where the course of our life could have been horribly and irretrievably altered; basically, the mysterious mechanics of just whom addiction (or another disease) grabs and chokes (or doesn’t) is no different. Addiction is not a choice.
Shame has no place in the world of addiction. A toxic, corroding emotion, shame doesn’t belong anywhere near a disease or anything else that is not in our own control. And, importantly, we must consider how our shame is reflected in the eyes of our beloved addict. It’s time to let our shame go. Once we shift our focus from entertaining our own inner demons to that of battling the disease itself, we move from hurting to helping, and recovery becomes possible for everyone involved. In building a strong and healthy foundation of growth, support, and healing, shedding our shame is essential. Leaving our shame behind is the first brick.
Shame and silence help The Addict to kill the child. Shame and silence are exactly the cover The Addict wants and needs, providing protection for The Addict so he’s free to keep doing whatever he’s doing without interference and giving The Addict another day to further consume our child’s body and mind.
And yet, because addiction has so contorted what love is supposed to look like, so thoroughly twisted it into unrecognizable knots, shame and silence are exactly what we so accommodatingly provide—because it’s a pressure cooker around us. Already confused, ashamed, and afraid, our actions are also a reaction to family, friends, and community members who believe that addiction is a moral failing and that talking about it is akin to airing dirty laundry. A reaction to the coercion and manipulation piled on by The Addict playing self-preservation games with everyone in sight.
But shame is what allows The Addict to win the war by ensuring that no one else shows up to fight the fight.
Let go of shame and silence. The best gift we can give The Addict is to keep quiet. But the best gift we can give our loved ones consumed by the disease of addiction is to speak up. To open eyes and hearts and minds. To change the way people see and interact with our children. And to let our children see us standing up to their disease (not helping it). Before it’s too late. Before the next child’s death.
The deadly march of the disease of addiction stops with us.
Let’s talk about addiction just as we would any other disease, with no more shame than if we were talking about the sniffles. Let’s stand tall and confident under criticism or judgment by those who don’t want to understand. We’re not the ones who should feel ashamed. The only shame is in allowing the disease of addiction to thrive by hiding the truth in the darkness.
So—no more shame. No more silence.
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Sandra Swenson is the author of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction (Central Recovery Press 2014), Tending Dandelions: Honest Meditations for Mothers with Addicted Children (Hazelden 2017), the Readings for Moms of Addicts app (Hazelden 2018), and her blog.
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