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Alcoholics and drug addicts are stigmatized and negatively portrayed by the media all the time. Common stereotypes of addicts include being poor or low-income, coming from a broken family, or having suffered a major tragedy.

However, addiction does not discriminate. It affects Hollywood stars, Wall Street bankers, parents, and even teens. Mental health and addiction can affect people of every race, age, gender, religion, and social class. In fact, more than 21 million Americans struggle with substance abuse; and 1 in every 11 teens has abused an over-the-counter medicine.

Because addiction affects so many people, it’s important to break down the negative stigmas surrounding mental health and addiction to promote positive change and support around the world.

1) Addiction Is a Choice

My dad is a successful business owner, husband, father of three, and an addict. Growing up, he struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. For years, I was angry and thought to myself that if he just made the decision to stop drinking, everything would be okay.

How very wrong I was. One of the most common misconceptions about addiction is that it’s a choice. Many people think that, because people choose to drink or abuse drugs, they can just as easily choose to quit at any time.

After my dad went into a 90-day intensive in-patient rehab center, and after I participated in family therapy sessions, I came to realize that alcohol and drug addiction is not a choice. It is a disease.

It’s important to raise awareness about what addiction is, how it affects the brain chemistry, and why it’s actually a disease. Just like people who have cancer undergo treatment, people with addiction need professional care to heal.

2) Addicts Are “Weak”

Addicts and their family members often experience shame. When I was in high-school, I remember being embarrassed to admit to my friends that my dad was using, or that he was in rehab. At the time, I thought drug addiction was a choice, and so I felt shameful that my dad was “weak” and couldn’t just stop drinking and doing drugs.

Likewise, my dad—the addict—felt shame and so he removed and isolated himself from his family, friends, and community.

People with diseases like cancer and diabetes get sympathy from people. Alcoholics get little sympathy from others, even though addiction is a disease, too. People often assume addicts can control their disease and their weakness for alcohol. However, just like cancer, addiction is a hereditary disease and allergy—not a weakness.

While emotions are intense and addiction is full of ups and downs, it’s essential to for everyone to work through the guilt and shame and embrace the recovery process together.

It’s important to put your pride aside and become vulnerable with yourself and others. Addicts can carry emotional scars that make it difficult to be open and deal with the real issues at hand. However, vulnerability allows peace and healing to begin in the recovery process.

Once I could get over my shame, I could openly talk with others of the progress my dad was making. Now, he has been sober for over two years. I’m not embarrassed to talk about it. In fact, I’m proud and like to share his success with others.

3) Addiction Is Rare

Sobriety is taken one day at a time, and each day sober is an accomplishment for the addict and their families. Alcoholics and drug addicts share similar brain behaviors. They speak a language unknown to non-addicts. By surrounding themselves with groups of like-minded people, they build a community where love, trust and vulnerability can flourish.

In addition to programs like AA that are available to the addict, there are great community groups to help support family members of addicts.

It’s important to realize you are not alone. My sisters and I often felt isolated because our dad was an addict. We thought our dad was the only “broken” dad out there. We never doubted his love for his, but we knew he struggled more than other dads did.

When we started going to family therapy and Al-Anon, we realized just how prevalent addiction is. We no longer felt isolated. Instead, we felt loved and supported by others going through the same situation.

Experience has shown that addicts who try recovery on their own are more prone to failure and relapse. Success rates dramatically increase when addicts rely on their sober community. Likewise, family members who support an addict need to stick together to recover, too. We all have wounds we need to heal, and it’s much easier to do it together.

As addiction becomes more prevalent in society, it’s essential to break down the negative stigmas associated with the disease. Struggling with addiction is not a weakness, and neither is asking for help. Relying on community, participating in honest discussions, seeking professional help and engaging in sober fun help break down the negative stereotypes surrounding addiction.

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