As a healthcare provider, ex-addict, and harm reduction advocate, I know firsthand how important it is to treat those struggling with addiction with compassion and respect, not contempt.
Had I not had this myself (from my family at the time), I wouldn’t be alive today. Since September is National Recovery Month – a month to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover – I’ve decided to compile 8 of my favorite “Compassionate Recovery” quotes that will hopefully inspire you to think differently about addiction and those who may be impacted by it.
Whether you are a medical professional or just know someone currently struggling with mental health or addiction issues, showing compassion is far more effective than condemning their behavior.
Why? Because it works.
If punitive measures were indeed successful at preventing addiction, criminalization in the US would be an exemplary model. But we all know that’s not the case. The result of our anti-compassionate approach to addiction speaks for itself:
Not only does the US have the highest incarceration rate in the world, many of which are non-violent drug offenders, excessive alcohol use has led to approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) each year in the United States from 2006 – 2010, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years. And don’t get me started on the overdose rate.
In other words, the only thing that punishing people struggling with an addiction does is make the problem worse. Instead, we need harm reduction.
What is harm reduction?
In the addiction sphere, harm reduction aims to support people who are using drugs by providing less harmful, less risky, and healthier ways to access and use drugs. It’s a recovery approach that treats those struggling with drug use with compassion and dignity, not shame and contempt.
Why do we need harm reduction?
Because America has a big drug problem and shaming or punishing people because of their addiction does NOT help them. When we show compassion we give people in recovery hope, acceptance, and support.
When we choose NOT to be compassionate, we pass judgment. This perpetuates the cycle of shame and stigma, two of the reasons that hold people back from getting help.
Contempt is not helpful to the individuals who are suffering, but it’s also not beneficial for the community and society in which we live.
What can you do?
If you are a medical professional, you can commit to giving your clients an individualized approach to treatment, meaning you take the time to understand the root cause of their addiction. The myriad of ways people arrive at addiction is complex, but without doing so you’re simply setting them up to relapse, overdose, or replace one bad habit for another.
The following quotes seek to provide a new perspective on addiction, one that is compassionate and hope-inspiring.
1. “Don’t ask the question ‘why the addiction,’ but ‘why the pain?'” – Dr. Gabor Mate
Though not everyone who is using drugs/alcohol is necessarily medicating trauma (unless we all agree to greatly expand the definition of trauma), I definitely see trauma in a majority of the people I work with.
And then there are the facts: People with an ACE score of 5 or higher are up to ten times more likely to experience addiction compared with people who haven’t experienced childhood trauma. Read more about ACEs.
2. “Addiction is not caused by any one thing. It’s not caused by a drug. Not caused by a gene alone. Not caused by culture alone. All of these are factors that can contribute. Your temperament, worldview, also contribute. Therefore, it’s a developmental disorder.” – Maia Szalavitz
The way we view addiction determines how we treat it and how we view those who struggle with it. That’s why Maia Szalavitz believes addiction is more closely analogous to ADHD than anything else.
Like ADHD, there are genetic components, but some people manage to grow out of it. While some folks might need medication to manage it.
3. “You are where you are for very complex and personal reasons, and we need to respect that. “ – Andrew Tatarsky
No two people arrive at addiction in the exact same way. Therefore, an individualized approach to treatment is needed.
Furthermore, it’s confusing when the medical system claims “addiction is a disease” but then recommends treating it with confession, meeting, and prayer (aka AA or 12-steps) instead of scientifically proven methods like medically assisted treatment and behavioral therapy.
Addiction is also not a moral problem, one that can be treated punitively through criminalization or shame. Addiction is the result of many factors which is why an individualized approach to treatment is needed.
4. “The most important thing is to help the person understand why the relapse happened and, instead of punishing and shaming them, encourage them to reflect and grow.” – Dr. Adi Jaffe
People with an addiction are often judged at face-value by who they are right now, without any compassion or understanding of where they have come from or what has happened to them. Understanding these underlying issues, however, becomes KEY in unlocking the secrets of addiction recovery.
5. “Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance.” – Albert Einstein
Einstein may not have been talking about addiction when he said this quote, but it’s certainly applicable. Assuming everyone who is addicted to drugs/alcohol is lazy or a lowlife is not only insulting, it keeps those who are struggling trapped in a shame cycle.
No path to addiction looks the same, but many paths include exposure to trauma and/or a genetic component. In order to find the root cause of someone’s addiction, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper.
6. “When will “junkie” be seen as a slur? It’s offensive. Hurtful. Dangerous, even. People suffering from addiction tend to hate themselves already. Calling them names might worsen their problems. After all, people tend to use more if they feel worthless. Stigma hurts.” – M. L. Lanzillotta
Language matters. When we refer to those who are struggling with addiction as “junkies“, we perpetuate feelings of powerlessness, worthlessness, and not-enoughness. Instead, aim to use person-first language.
A recent study in JAMA showed that this alone can tremendously help those who struggle.
7. “Our patients are not questions to be answered or problems to be solved, but rather people who have given us the privilege to stand with them and offer strength and support, in the form of knowledge, advice, and compassion in times of crisis” – Jennifer Adaaze Okwerekwu
When you consider all of the barriers to entering treatment (affordability, accessibility, shame), it’s a huge deal when someone finally makes the leap and asks for help.
As a medical professional, don’t use this opportunity to belittle or perpetuate shame. Instead, it’s a chance to share your expertise and build that person back up.
8. “Putting trauma work at the front and center of drug treatment makes a big difference. Yet we also need to treat people with empathy and respect outside of treatment. Criminalizing drug users focuses action on drug use rather than the underlying cause.” – Paul Delaney
Criminalization is a punitive measure. By punishing those who sell and use drugs, we are sending a message to others that drugs are bad. All this rhetoric does is keep people who are struggling in the dark.
Who is going to come out of the darkness and ask for help if their culture has convinced them that they are a criminal? Shame doesn’t do anything but push people further into hiding.
Struggling with addiction? Bookmark this page and refer to it when you’re feeling down.
Addiction is NOT your fault. You are not powerless over your behavior, with the right tools and methods you can overcome anything.
If you are a loved one of someone struggling with addiction, share this email with them. Let them know that you are there for them. Those who have a network of supportive people recover faster than those who don’t.