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The Innocent Bystanders of Addiction

Addiction is a complicated disease. Even with all the research we’ve amassed over the years, we’ve barely scratched its surface, which is why there are more unconventional, innovative forms of treatment and recovery resources being offered all the time.

Often when we think of addiction we think of the struggles of the addict or alcoholic. In reality, these are not the only ones severely affected by the disease. Addiction is often a family disease. This means that the helplessness and trauma carry over to the innocent people who surround the addict. Addiction has a long and powerful reach, and most people will be affected by addiction in one way or another in their lifetime.

Let’s not forget the bystanders who are affected by addiction

When we think about the effects of addiction, we often focus on what the disease does to the person who develops it. For instance, we think about the deterioration of health, behavioral changes that affect a person’s life and relationships, and so on. There are also many ways that a person’s addiction affects the people around him or her, particularly when it comes to one’s spouse, children, family members, close friends, and even coworkers. However, there are still more people who are affected by addiction, and that’s the innocent bystanders.

To be clear, those considered innocent bystanders are individuals who don’t have (and haven’t had) substance abuse problems, don’t know anyone who has suffered from addiction, and yet they’re still directly affected by the disease. A prime example would be victims of crimes that addicts commit to sustain their substance abuse habits. Another example would be the violent acts that we occasionally hear about, resulting from someone under the influence of an exceptionally dangerous drug — i.e., bath salts, PCP, etc. — losing touch with reality and attacking someone nearby. While the number of people affected by addiction in this way is far fewer than those affected by addiction either personally or through the substance abuse of a loved one, this still happens quite often.

Unfortunately, the fact that there are innocent bystanders harmed by addiction seems to support the perspective of those who stigmatize addiction; these are individuals who consider all addicts to be violent, dangerous, and menacing to society. To someone who has been hurt by an addict, this would seem to be the reality of the situation rather than an unfair judgement and overgeneralization.

We spend a lot of time talking about the detrimental effects of the addiction stigma. Among the many negative effects, there’s the fact that the addiction stigma discourages addicts from seeking treatment for addiction since they have to identify themselves as addicts and, therefore, incur the judgement and demonization that results from the addiction stigma. Of course, this isn’t to say that addiction should be glorified or that those who commit heinous acts in the name of or while under the influence of alcohol and drugs shouldn’t have to answer for those actions; however, we should try to better understand the source of some of the stigmatization of addiction because some people harbor these feelings as a direct result of the experiences they’ve had.

From the perspective of someone who has little knowledge about or experience with addiction, it would appear that substance abuse problems are self-inflicted and the result of refusal to exercise restraint and self-control; therefore, one could say that the nature of addiction tends to make it difficult for many individuals to sympathize with those suffering from substance abuse problems. When you factor in how bystanders can be negatively — and potentially even gravely — affected by the addictions of others, we can begin to sympathize with the addiction stigma in the same way that we hope individuals who stigmatize addiction will gain a better understanding of addiction as a brain disease.

In short, there are two sides to every coin. It goes without saying that the stigmatization of addiction is a huge problem that discourages recovery and has a number of other negative effects, but it’s hard to tell someone who has been harmed by an addict that their negative views of addiction are unfounded and should be replaced with sympathy. The main reason we should consider why some people stigmatize addiction is so that we can find better ways of helping these individuals to overcome those preconceived notions and unfair judgements.