You are not a bad person.

Morgan Levy, Contributing Writer

Trigger Warning: this article contains mention and in depth discussion of drug addiction and the stigma surrounding addiction.

Addiction is an incurable disease which results in the brain craving a particular substance or activity. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 20.4 million Americans (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2019. The number of Americans struggling with substance abuse has steadily increased since 2019. Despite a large percentage of the American population struggling with addiction, many people believe that addicts are inherently “bad people” who lack appropriate will-power or principles. Let that sink in for a moment. Do you agree with this statement? Should someone be labeled a “bad person” because of their disease?

People often are. According to American Addiction Centers, “many people […] view addiction as a moral failing, something that only bad people suffer from.” This belief reinforces those struggling with addiction to stay silent. To suffer alone. To mask a smile and go about their daily lives even when they don’t recognize the person staring back at them in the mirror.

Those who view addicts as moral failures lack a foundational understanding of what addiction truly is. They often view addiction as a choice rather than a disease, a view largely unaligned with advancing scientific knowledge of the phenomenon. As detailed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction feeds our brain’s “reward circuit,” causing euphoria as well as “flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine.” This is the same part of the brain that tells you that you are hungry and need to eat. Thus, if you are suffering from addiction, your brain berates you with messages to use a substance, like it would to get you to eat if you were hungry. It is a highly possessive illness that inhabits your brain and affects your daily life – both physically and mentally.

So, why do an overwhelming amount of people believe addiction is deleterious of morals? There is no singular clear answer, but Colleen L. Barry, PhD, MPP, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health proposes an interesting hypothesis. “With addiction, the feeling that the addict is a bad or weak person, especially because much drug use is illegal,” Barry said. In the face of illegal drug use, we must ask what causes people to reach the extreme of breaking the law in order to get a fix? And that very cause is the disease of addiction. 

The stigma surrounding drug addiction has had a significant impact on my life. As someone who is currently battling addiction, the beginning of my journey was saturated with fear. I was terrified to come forth and express what I was facing. The stigma and fear of being a “bad person” made me hesitant to accept the fact that I have a problem and need to address my addiction. The stigma burdened me with immense shame over my behavior and prohibited me from reaching out for help for a long time. No one should have to fear judgement and endure horrendous assumptions because of their struggle with substance abuse. However, people will continue to suffer in silence if we — as a society — do not make proactive changes in how we view addiction. 

It has taken me a long time to state the following words aloud: “My name is Morgan, and just because I struggle with addiction, that does not make me a bad person.”

So, if you are battling addiction, remember this: you are not a moral failure. Addiction is a hidden story, and there are so many factors that others will not understand. Recovery is a battle, but hold on. Slowly, the battles will get easier. 

SAMHSA National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357

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