Commentary: Danger of stigma, shame in recovery and mental health
By Mali Woods-Drake
I I was 14 the first time I sat in a therapist’s office. After finding my journals referring to suicidal thoughts combined with my last trip to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, my parents took me to see a psychologist.
Ashamed of needing “help”, I spent the entire 60 minutes without saying a word. At the end of the session, the therapist told my parents that the therapy would probably fail if I refused to talk. That was the end of my early entry into mental health treatment.
I was 19, sophomore in college, when I hit rock bottom. I was lucky my mom was in town celebrating her 50th birthday when I called her at 5:30 a.m. hungover, disoriented, and contemplating suicide.
Within 30 minutes she was at my apartment where she literally and figuratively transported me out of the darkness to her car. That same afternoon, I was in a therapist’s office.
This time, I talked non-stop about my anxiety attacks, my drinking history, the wreckage that had become my life as a result of my search for relief from depression deep in my heart. ‘a bottle.
At 19, I identified as an alcoholic.
Just days before I entered rehab for a month, my dad shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer.
“Focus on your recovery and I will do the same, we’re both going to beat this,” he said.
I did what he asked, 26 days in hospital, followed by young adult outpatient treatment three days a week, weekly 1:1 therapy, and a prescription Celexa 20mg per day.
Sadly, while my recovery was well underway, my father’s cancer continued to rage and he passed away on September 3, 2001. I was six months sober and devastated.
Despite losing my father and worsening depression, I managed to stay sober, an achievement I attest to thanks to amazing therapists, the community, and the grace of a God I was beginning to believe in. .
As a woman in long-term recovery and someone who has proudly shared my own story in hopes of ending the stigma of mental illness, I have had the privilege of meeting thousands of people walking the same path.
I have also had the grief that accompanies the loss of countless loved ones to drug addiction and suicide, many of whom have suffered in silence because of the shame and stigma that our society places on mental health disorders. .
I recently read the following anonymous statements written about me on a website called “Encinitas Undercover”.
• “Her alcohol-marinated brain may not have gotten drunk lately, but she still acts and thinks like an alcoholic. If only we had one of his closed AA meetings, or when it’s taped.
• “Is a drug addict who admits taking drugs daily really considered sober? I do not think so.”
I am well aware that as an outspoken activist in the community, I have opened my position on issues up to criticism.
However, what hurts the most about these comments is not the personal attack, but rather that our neighbors, some newly recovering, actively addicted, or suffering from mental health issues may also be reading these comments.
The danger these comments pose to someone who is about to decide between asking for help or ccontinuing to suffer is inexplicable. The reference to infiltrating a 12-step closed meeting to record someone’s share is inadmissible.
At least one in five young people between the ages of 9 and 17 currently suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. And yet, members of our community outwardly criticize those who take prescribed medication. What does this say to our loved ones who may be suffering?
Some of the bravest people I have ever met are those who have walked through the doors of a treatment center, recovery wards or a therapist’s office.
They were broken by societal norms, but they weren’t hopeless, mostly because someone else had shown them it was possible.
Addiction is a disease of isolation, healing a solution of connection. When we risk pushing these brave recovery warriors into obscurity from harmful attacks, we risk the lifeline between them and those who wantg to find healing. We risk people’s lives.
I celebrated 21 years of sobriety on March 15, 2022. (To be clear, yes, one is still sober despite taking prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.)
I have no shame for my story, for the six years of active alcoholism, or for the thousands of hours spent healing in therapy and recovery rooms. On the contrary, I have gratitude and pride.
I hope we can do better as neighbors to those with mental health issues or active addictions. Ideally, we can support them.
And at the very least, don’t shame them.
Mali Woods Drake is the founder of Encinitas4Equality.