Shift the Focus

Shift the Focus

ELKTON — Are you a judgmental person? Do you inflict your perceptions on others? Are you a person who has felt the wounds of stigma firsthand?

In our society, there continues to be a great deal of stigma associated with substance use and addiction. With today’s health crisis, where do you stand?

It is easy for people to sit in the judgement of others until someone near and dear to them is suffering. It is often only then that a person steps back and re-evaluates their opinion. Many times it takes trauma to occur for empathy to set in. With addiction, that could even mean the death of a loved one.

An acquaintance of mine once expressed that she felt “these kids need to get their acts together. Their parents did not keep enough structure in their home.” I put on my shield of armor and knew that what I was about to tell her would open myself up to possible criticism. I took a deep breath and proceeded to inform her of how my son was “one of those kids” and I was one of those parents.

One of the first steps to move away from judgement is to take the time to educate yourself. Stigma’s negative impact can be prevented and lessened through education. If you don’t have lived experience, then how can you project your opinion on others? Lack of education is what keeps people caught in web of judgement. It gives a false sense that it is acceptable to be cruel to others.

Decades of scientific research has been done on substance use. One thing made clear is that addiction is not a moral failing, a character flaw or a sign of weakness. It is now labeled a chronic brain disease. Substance use now falls under the umbrella of behavioral health. This term allows for hope for substance users and their families. There are many resources loved ones can access to help improve the biological hand they’re dealt. They are suffering with a substance use illness. Most important, a choice can be made to get help and take steps to manage their illness.

Society must acknowledge that those with substance use issues are individuals who need help. Let’s get real. These are human beings who are smart, loving and kind. They are someone’s brother, sister, son, daughter, father, mother, aunt or uncle. As a society we cannot have it both ways. We cannot treat those with substance use disorders in a negative manner and yet expect them to reach out for help. By reducing our judgement, we will help to reduce the stigma that prevents so many from seeking help. Isn’t it time to be part of the solution?

Parents, judges, police officers, executives, bus drivers, restaurant owners … now is the time to help break the stigma. Few people do not have a family member suffering with substance abuse. Yet, I have met many parents, spouses and professionals who are embarrassed, feel guilty, and don’t’ want people to know their family secret.

Society’s stigma towards substance abuse impacts not only our loved ones looking for help, but public health interventions that could save money and lives. One harm reduction measure allows substance users to get clean hypodermic needles at no cost. Best practice for this harm reduction program is to also collect the used syringes. This is what protects our society from the spread of hepatitis C throughout our community. More important, it exposes our loved ones to the possibility of help. This may seem counterintuitive to most people, but research shows there is a statistical significance in the reduction in injection drug use from this program.

Is this something we want in our community? No. But more important, do we want our loved ones and children being exposed to dirty needles? Do we want hepatitis C to spread even more rampant throughout our county? No. Currently Cecil is third in the state for hepatitis C per capita. This is a solution to try to help this problem.

Stigma can cause major harm to people in their social lives. Parents and spouses may experience loneliness and isolation. Depression may set in and fear of the family secret being exposed will cause them to pull back from their friends and relatives. Feelings of shame can be internalized, causing the disconnect from potential help to be even greater. Those who stigmatize others must face the reality that their behavior is actually preventing people from seeking recovery or family support. This perpetuates the cycle that everyone criticizes.

Some effective ways to share with others (or for yourself) to help reduce the stigma are:

  1. Do your research. Learn about substance use and how it affects the individual and the family. This will help you to replace negative attitudes with evidence-based facts.
  2. Offer support with compassion — it is a vulnerable place for a family to be so be kind. Listen without judgement.
  3. Avoid hurtful labels. Treat people with a substance dependency with dignity and respect. See the person for who they are, not what drugs they use.
  4. Speak up when you see or hear someone else mistreating others. Remember how you felt when you were stigmatized or judged by others. People with a substance use illness have feelings, too.
  5. Help someone toward recovery. Encourage them with your own strength and hope for a better life.

September is Recovery Month, so step out of your comfort zone, take off your mask and throw away your shame and stigma. Take part in a Recovery Month event, as showing your loved one you support recovery, not their continued choice to use, will be a huge step forward. The recovery community in Cecil County is growing.

Recovery Month Events:

Aug. 30: Recovery Centers of America Overdose Awareness Lantern Release, starts at dusk (8:30 p.m.), Bracebridge Hall, 314 Grove Neck Road, Earleville.

Aug. 31: Voices of Hope for Cecil County 6th Annual Overdose Candlelight Vigil, 6 p.m., Gilbert Lighthouse Pavilion, North East Community Park. Bring a picture of your loved one to decorate a lantern.

Sept. 3: Cecil County Recovery Month Proclamation, 7 p.m., County Council, 200 Chesapeake Blvd., Elkton.

Sept. 14: Haven House Annual Picnic/Movie Night, 6 p.m., 1195 Augustine Herman Highway, Elkton.

Sept. 14: Recovery Centers of America Karaoke Party, 6 to 8 p.m., Bracebridge Hall, 314 Grove Neck Road, Earleville.

Sept. 15: Ashely Addiction Annual Ashley Homecoming, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Ashley Campus, 800 Tydings Lane, Havre de Grace.

Sept. 21: Recovery Centers of America Speak Easy/Poetry Slam, 7 p.m., Bracebridge Hall, 314 Grove Neck Road, Earleville.

Sept. 25: On Our Own Open House & Resource Fair, 2 to 6 p.m., 223 E. Main St., Elkton.

Sept. 28: Cecil County 9th Annual Recovery Walk & Block Party, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Brantwood Family Services, 1190 Augustine Herman Highway, Elkton.

Lorri Irrgang is a local author, recovery advocate and mother of someone in recovery. If you are a parent, sibling, or spouse that needs help with a loved one, contact her at 410-688-9317 or

(1) comment

Sam Dickerson

Thank you for writing this article!! We do not stigmatize other diseases for their contributing behavior and their genetic components, e.g. lung cancer (smoking and genetics), diabetes (poor diet and genetics). I think you hit the nail on the head with the fact that you cannot be passionately opposed to substance use and the evidence based interventions we are implementing, but also have a desire for the problem to "go away". We ALL have a duty to be part of the solution, or get out of the way of those of us who have chosen to be part of the solution. You are either a part of the solution, or part of the problem. You cannot be both.

I am a single dad of three amazing children. I am a son, an uncle, a brother, a good employee and a college graduate today. 7 years ago I was unemployed and unemployable. I am where I am today because of people like Lorrie who are willing to step up and share their life experience, and be part of the solution.

If you still are not sure if you can be compassionate to those struggling with substance use disorder, think of me and many, many others who are productive and positive members of their community today because of the treatment and recovery programs that were available to us, and those who chose to be part of the solution. The disease of addiction is chronic and reoccurring, but we never give on a life, never.

Thank you Lorrie and to those who took the time to read this article and educate yourself.

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