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Effects of Stigma & Prejudice - Even After an Addict Gets Sober

Substance abusers, even those who are successfully recovering, are frequently treated differently than individuals without the disease. Often family members, employers, courts, law enforcement officials, etc. who encounter addicts and alcoholics are prejudiced against them despite the well-established fact that addiction is a chronic disease much like diabetes, Crohn’s disease or cancer.

This blog explores the effects of prejudice toward addicts and alcoholics, why it happens and what steps can be taken to correct it.


Like many of us, when I hear the word “prejudice” I first think of skin color, religious orientation, sexual preference, social class, gender, etc. As a recovering addict and alcoholic myself, I have experienced stigma and prejudice over the years. Many of my addiction counseling and intervention clients encounter it as well.

Several scientific studies have identified that the reason people view addicts and alcoholics with more disdain vs. people with other diseases is related to their behavior while they are using alcohol and drugs. Such judgments don’t exist in the same way for diabetics, people with Crohn’s disease or cancer patients. Research shows that the lies, rage, stealing, betrayal and manipulative behavior of the substance abuser while they are active in their disease is what accounts for this difference.

Like other prejudices, ignorance plays a part in maintaining the prejudice long after a person is in recovery and has stopped acting in the old addicted ways. Much of our society continues to view the unacceptable and sometimes disgusting behavior of the alcoholic as being under their control. Similarly, if people believed diabetes to be a self-inflicted process and not a disease, there would be stigma and prejudice surrounding that disease as well.

Effects of Prejudice Toward Recovering Alcoholics & Addicts

Recently I testified in court proceedings to determine the custody of two children. The mother had been a chronic alcoholic for years. Her many inappropriate behaviors during that time ripped the family apart and caused great trauma to her two children, age 14 and 16. She went to treatment two and a half years ago and successfully completed a 90-day inpatient program. Following that she participated in a very intensive outpatient program and continues to work a structured and powerful ongoing recovery program today. She has been continuously sober for two and a half years now and is considered to be in long term recovery.

The testimony in her trial lasted three days with many people on both sides providing their perception and expert testimony regarding the quality of her recovery. It was troubling to me as the trial proceeded that there was a clear prejudice against her past, tainting the custody trial. The tone of the proceedings simply discounted the last two and a half years, and instead focused on the past.

The prejudice in this case was so strong that it prevented a mother from being reunited and with her children. Despite an ongoing successful recovery from the disease of alcoholism, she lost custody and is only able to see her children one hour per month in a public place. For all intents and purposes, she and the children have lost the opportunity to have any kind of meaningful relationship.

Prejudice often shows up in the families of addicts. Frequently in my intervention practice, I find that family members are simply unable/unwilling to overcome their hurt, pain and rage after having experienced years of abuse from the addicted family member. While having someone with diabetes in the family could certainly cause a lot of stress and frustration, it can hardly be compared to having a loved one who steals your family jewels that are heirlooms, crashes cars, overdoses several times and repeatedly hurts other family members. The disease of addiction causes the loved one to act in unexpected ways. At times they seem to take on the persona of a totally different person, and when active in their addiction they are often selfish, lack empathy or compassion and behave in very self-destructive ways.

How Can You Overcome This Prejudice?

Whether you’re a family member, friend, employer, court professional, etc., there are some things you can do to overcome your prejudice toward addicts and alcoholics:

  • Explore the facts. By educating yourself with facts you may begin to see this is a disease and not a moral issue.

  • Contact an addiction professional. A highly qualified counselor is able to provide quality information and help you see that the real enemy is the alcohol. You will learn that people do recover and change their behavior once they are off the alcohol and/or drugs.

  • Be open-minded enough to view things from a different perspective. For example, when my son was in college, he interviewed some homeless people and wrote a paper about them. My initial reaction to the project was one of fear and concern about him being in close proximity to homeless people. He told me how rewarding it was to talk with five homeless people about their lives. As he shared the stories of these people with me, each one became more human as I began to understand what had happened to them. This experience helped me see that my prejudice against homeless people was out of ignorance, and that they are people deserving of my empathy and compassion. Thus, my perspective changed, and my attitude of prejudice melted away.

  • Seek additional training. Professionals who work with substance abusers or those involved in the court system should ask superiors for training in overcoming prejudice against substance abusers. There’s a difference between holding someone accountable and holding someone accountable with continued prejudice. Healing happens only when family members and professionals become able to separate out accountability and prejudice.


Like most prejudices, ignorance plays a part in maintaining the prejudice long after a person is in recovery and has stopped acting in the old addicted ways. Addiction is a brain disease and not a criminal disease. Substance abuse is not a moral disease that people can solve simply by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

Until court officials, family members, employers and others understand more about addiction, prejudice and bias will continue to exist within our courts, corporations, families, etc. It is my hope that as a society we will work harder to educate people so that one day we’re all able to move past the stigma and prejudice associated with this disease.

If you or a loved one may be struggling with addiction, it is very important for you to seek out professional help as soon as possible. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if I may be of assistance to you or your loved ones. My website provides more information on my practice and how to contact me with questions or take advantage of a free 20-minute phone appointment.

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