A message from Dr. Nel Wieman, FNHA Acting Deputy Chief Medical Officer
If you or someone you care about is struggling with substance use disorder, it is important to know that one of the biggest barriers to recovery is stigma. The concept of stigma means that others' negative perceptions about a given condition can make the person with the condition feel ashamed.
During our Sober(er) for October campaign, and throughout the ongoing opioid crisis, we've talked about how the stigma associated with having a substance use disorder can prevent people from seeking harm-reduction and/or other treatment services. We've worked to decrease stigma by reminding everyone that those who struggle with substance use are our parents, grandparents, children, siblings, aunties, uncles and friends. They can be anyone – teachers, lawyers, tradespeople, service industry workers or doctors. I know this because I am a physician and an alcoholic, now in long-term recovery.
My own story of substance use began 15 years ago, when I experienced a number of very severe losses and stresses all in one year. I was left reeling, with feelings of grief, depression and anxiety, and was having trouble sleeping. I found that having a glass of wine every few evenings after work helped numb me and allowed me to fall asleep. Very quickly, however, my alcohol use increased dramatically and became problematic.
My drinking started causing stress in my relationships and even interfering with my ability to work. I sometimes called in sick for a week at a time, then made some excuse for my absence. This is when my internalized stigma really kicked in. Internalized stigma, or self-stigma, develops when the negative messages associated with stigma are absorbed into one's thinking and the person starts to believe the negative messages and the feelings associated with them. The sicker I became, the more my thoughts centred around self-blaming, self-loathing, and hopelessness. My internalized stigma became a barrier to seeking help, and for six long years, I was in and out of recovery – frustrating myself, my family, my peers, and my colleagues, and creating a vicious cycle of shame and despair.
Finally, circumstances occurred that allowed me to seek treatment. The first while, the negative, internalized feelings of stigma persisted. I continued with treatment, however, and began to change my thinking about my condition and realize I could recover.
I am now almost six years into my recovery journey, which for me involves continuous sobriety. I have learned so much about myself and have developed healthier ways of coping. I try to keep balanced by looking after my emotional, mental, physical and spiritual aspects. I practise gratitude on a daily basis and do what I need to do, because maintaining my wellness journey of recovery is very important to me and has markedly improved my life. I bring my lived experience to my work, where it is valued, not demeaned. I wake up every morning with a clear head, and I can't tell you how great it feels. I no longer feel shame. I am proud of who I am and being open about being in recovery helps keep me safe.
Now that I have a stronger and healthier mind, I see that my internalized stigma about being someone with an alcohol use disorder was what prevented me from seeking help much sooner. My hope in sharing my story is that someone will realize they are doing the same type of thinking and act earlier than I did to throw off feelings of stigma and move forward into recovery.
I hope you are finding our Sober(er) for October messages helpful! Know that we care about you and will walk with you on your journey to wellness.
Acting Deputy Chief Medical Officer
Office of the Chief Medical Officer