The Price of the Stigma

So I am sure that it isn’t a surprise in the least, when I tell you that alcohol use disorder carries a “bit” of a stigma, right? Groups like ‘She Recovers’ and so many other brave and vulnerable souls all over the internet are working at chipping away at that stigma, by recovering out loud. Search for the hashtags and trends and you will be buoyed with hope. But it is a slow process to change a society, and belief systems don’t transform overnight. Honestly, it took me quite awhile to “come out” as sober, because the societal mindset we have allowed to exist is a petrifying place to be honest about your struggles with alcohol. It is still really scary to talk about it.

I have a friend, she is sober, and she comes from a long legacy of drinking. She isn’t unique. Her mother and her mother’s siblings were/are heavy drinkers, her grandfather struggled too. The family history is strong, evident and totally not unique. How many people do we know that come form this background only to struggle themselves one day? I am not going to try to claim that it is a genetic disease, because I just don’t know the science well enough. But I am going to claim that there is a genetic and generational link that truly can’t be denied. Whether families pass it down through nurture or nature, they definitely pass down their drinking problems. Over and over and over. And no one is talking about it.

Back to my friend. She is ecstatic this week, her beloved aunt has agreed, much to everyone’s surprise, to enter a rehab facility. It is a true miracle. Her aunt, let’s call her Jane, was going to die otherwise, she went really far down into the addiction, she found herself at a very deep bottom. Jane feels like a failure, because she couldn’t “figure it out” on her own. My friend wants to scream from the rooftops “It is not your fault!!!!”. And it isn’t. It was Jane’s legacy, but no one ever told her about it. No one warned her. No one told Jane that she and her siblings were at extra risk for addictive drinking behaviour. Their father was a binge drinker, he blacked out and binged, but eventually got sober. Then his children started drinking heavily, and no one told them to keep an eye on it. It wasn’t just normalized, it was promoted. Family functions revolved around alcohol, celebrations weren’t complete without the presence of booze. The family partied. The family laughed about it. Until one of their siblings found himself in a not so funny place. So then he quit, in a quiet and shameful way, but the rest of them kept going. Kept partying. Kept laughing. Kept normalizing. And still no one talked about it. Life handed out some trauma, as it often does, and Jane used alcohol, of course, to cope. Eventually the alcohol took over her life. People were no longer laughing as much as Jane’s life got darker, but they still weren’t talking about it openly. They still weren’t telling Jane that she was genetically predisposed to cope with trauma by numbing out. That addiction could steal her joy easier than those without her family history. No one told her to keep an eye on the disease/disorder that kept showing up in her family. The rest of them kept partying and laughing, while Jane got worse and worse. No one knew how to talk about it. And it wasn’t their fault. They never learned how to talk about it. In fact, they were taught NOT to talk about it. It was something to be kept anonymous and private. It was shrouded in shame and secrecy.

This extended family also produced a bunch of their own children, many of who seem to like alcohol a lot more than the average person, of course. And still no one talks about it. My friend, she had to figure it out on her own, at age 35, after one too many close calls. My friend had to “wing” it through her boozy teens, twenties and thirties, because no one taught her that there was a family issue to be careful about. In fact, they kept normalizing alcohol, encouraging it, almost as if they were trying to make sure and prove that they didn’t actually have this embarrassing issue. If someone “slipped up”, they hid it under the proverbial rug (reinforcing the idea that having this “problem” was shameful and meant to be kept secret). Maybe they were just hoping that the next generation could finally “figure it out”?

Their story isn’t unique. It is so familiar, it could be the textbook on this.

Let’s now take that story and replace the family legacy of alcohol abuse with breast cancer. Let’s say that many women in one family found themselves afflicted by this awful disease. Breast cancer stole health and joy and vibrancy from many people in one family. It was passed on to the next generation, and then the next one. Would people be talking about it? OF COURSE. They would be talking prevention, endlessly. They would be trying to protect the next generation. They would be emphatic about testing and taking care of each other. OF COURSE. Daughters would be encouraged to get mammograms, maybe even genetic testing. Mothers would be having conversations, many conversations. All modern technology would be brought in to try to protect the family members. The troops would rally to fight together, this beast that was threatening their family members. Would we ever consider not talking about it? Would we ever consider letting the next generation “wing” it? Would we ever consider not protecting our family members from a known enemy? Would we ever consider silence to be appropriate when an all too familiar danger was lurking, waiting to take generation after generation?

What’s the difference? The stigma. Of course cancer carries no stigma. We are compassionate about it. We want to help. We aren’t afraid to seek professional help. We are encouraged to own it and to fight it, together. We talk about it a lot. We celebrate successes and work hard together at creating mores success stories. We take care of each other, we takes steps towards prevention. And the prevention is often successful. It has helped future generations to have better outcomes.

My perfect future is one where the stigma of alcohol use disorder is a distant memory, something we can’t believe we imposed on those who needed our help. Something we can’t fathom we allowed to endanger our loved ones. My perfect future involves family conversations about the issue of inter generational addiction, discussions about how to improve the quality of life for our loved ones by learning from the past. Because it is truly ludicrous to let generation after generation fall down from the same thing while a collective cognitive dissonance keeps us all hushed up about it.

(Go Jane, Go! xxx)

-E

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Erica CrescenziComment