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A SOBERING STORY: Perceptions on addiction slow to change

by on June 01, 2014 2:00 AM

Druggie. Tweaker. Alky. Junkie.

All are labels that speak to the stigma surrounding drug and alcohol addiction, which often is a hurdle for people seeking treatment, according to Barb Miklos, an Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission case manager. She also is president of The Advocacy Group in Kittanning, which is working to change public perception of the illness.

“Nobody wants to be a drug addict or an alcoholic, and so it does limit people seeking treatment,” she said. “Family members are embarrassed and don’t know where to go and don’t want to talk about what’s going on in their family.”

Shame and embarrassment help to create a barrier not only for people seeking treatment, but for people who are in recovery and would like to be open and honest about it, she said.

Vince Mercuri, executive director of The Open Door Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Center in Indiana, said that because addiction is often considered a moral failure or character weakness, people tend to think of addicts as second- or third-class citizens.

[PHOTO: Vince Mercuri, executive director, The Open Door (Gazette file photo)]

That’s harmful, he said, because it makes it them all the more hesitant to tell loved ones or employers they have a problem.

“The reason (the stigma) is a big barrier to get people into treatment is because people look down on them,” he said.

But those judgments don’t square with reality, he said.

“Addiction is not a discriminator. It’s an equal-opportunity destroyer,” he said.

“We have professionals here, we have teachers here — all walks of life that come to The Open Door for services,” he added. “They’re not third-class citizens by any stretch.”

However, people have a tendency to be biased about things they don’t understand, he said.

“Right from the beginning, the stigma is that these individuals that have this illness are inferior, and that’s just not true,” Mercuri said.


Miklos said another thing that perpetuates the stigma is the model that’s oftentimes applied to addiction treatment.

“The model for addiction treatment and the attitudes toward addiction are ones of an acute model — a bone is fractured, casted, healed and it is over, or someone goes to treatment and should be abstinent from then on ‘if they really wanted it.’”

Miklos said addiction is much more akin to a chronic illness, such as hypertension or diabetes. And just as with those illnesses, there are ups and downs in addiction recovery.

“We don’t shame the person that doesn’t stay on their low-salt diet or diabetic diet and state that they must not care about their disease,” Miklos said.

“It is a difficult concept for most people that people suffering from addiction need to be responsible for their disease. We aren’t making excuses because it is a disease, but relapse is often part of the disease and doesn’t necessarily mean the person does not want to stay clean and sober and have a good life,” she said.

Alcoholism and drug abuse each have an associated stigma, but it’s not equal. It’s worse for drug addicts, she said, because they are engaged in an illegal activity.

“In addition, in order to obtain drugs, the person puts themselves at a greater risk than going to the bar or liquor store,” she said. “Drinking in our society is accepted and often glamorized. There are many parents of children under the age of 21 that allow them to drink or host a graduation party which includes drinking but are adamantly opposed to any use of any drugs.”

And, Mercuri said, society is probably a little more accepting of an alcoholic than a drug addict because Alcoholics Anonymous has been around longer than Narcotics Anonymous — the 1930s versus the 1960s.

Mercuri said he feels there is more acceptance than there has been, that people are more accepting and tolerant of addicts getting help, but that “there are still extremely judgmental people out there.”

“People have this bias that drug addicts are social misfits when really they’re just people who are ill who need help. They just have problems they need to deal with,” he said.


Some addiction experts said they are beginning to see attitudes change, but Miklos said she doesn’t think the shift has been significant. For perceptions to change in a meaningful way, people in recovery need to speak up, be noticed and show recovery is possible.

Mercuri said he, too, believes people in recovery need to “come out of the shadows and talk about their story.”

Enter The Advocacy Group.

Started in June 2006, the organization works to provide an avenue for people in recovery, their families, professionals and others to exchange ideas, make plans and take actions to reduce the stigma of addiction.

It tries to do so by organizing educational and community activities, monitoring the Legislature and the courts for bills and decisions impacting treatment, and coordinating events to celebrate recovery.

The purpose of the community activities — one example is TAG’s occasional litter pickup days — is “so folks can see that recovery does work and people in recovery can start to contribute to the community instead of taking away from it.”

“In order to change the stigma of addiction, we need to let people see that recovery is possible and that people do obtain long-term recovery,” Miklos said.

Too often, the public is exposed only to the terrible things that arise from active addiction through media coverage of crime and the court system. But, she said, there’s not much publicity about the people in long-term recovery, partly because those in recovery tend to move out of the public eye.

“When people become successful and start to live a life of recovery, they start to move forward and have a life, and judges and treatment centers don’t see them anymore.”

TAG meets regularly — the fourth Tuesday of each month — and is looking to attach itself to more of the larger state and national groups.

“The recovery movement is kind of a push across the country to try to start to organize and motivate people in long-term recovery to come out of the shadows and let people know they’re in recovery,” Miklos said.

She said thousands upon thousands of people are in recovery.

“And you wouldn’t know about it,” she said. “The ones you do (hear about) are the ones that are failing,” she said.

“Since it’s becoming more of a national recovery movement, people will hopefully see this isn’t just an idea of a few of us; it’s a national movement.”


And that includes getting families involved, Miklos said.

“Families face the same type of stigma even though it’s not happening to them,” she said. “Families are at a loss of where to go for support. We want to give family members hope that even if some don’t recover, it is possible.”

And she should know: Miklos herself is in long-term recovery, 30 years clean.

“I am a person in long-term recovery, and for me, that means that I have been free from drugs and alcohol for 30 years,” she said, explaining the new terminology and suggested way of recovering addicts introducing themselves at community events and meetings.

“That’s the message we want to get out,” said Miklos, who added that in the past, she wouldn’t disclose that information, especially to strangers.

“This is new for me, too, and I think it’s important to show that this does happen, that people have been sober for five, seven, 10 years and it does happen. It speaks to me personally because in the past it was a private matter,” she said. “It’s a private thing, but now there’s a value for others and there’s a value for stigma to make sure to talk about it so you can help others so maybe things will start to change and people will start to think differently.”

Heather Carlson is the wire editor and an assistant web editor for The Indiana Gazette. She covers courts, Saltsburg and Homer City borough councils and Penns Manor and United school districts, in addition to writing feature articles. She can be reached at
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