Often times, there are misguided assumptions made about those who are addicted to a substance. They can be looked upon as weak, inferior or social pariahs. Sometimes they’re thought of as criminals, homeless, attention-seeking or reckless people, who simply use to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. They are painted with an unfair, incomprehensible and broad brush. But that brush does not reveal the complexities that lie beneath.

Sure, some addicts are criminals and homeless, but addiction does not discriminate on who it targets. There are so many normal individuals living normal lives, and still struggle with it. Somewhere along the line, though, these “normal” people diverted from their ordinary path, and instead of taking a proverbial right, they made a left turn down a dark and dangerous road.

While common risk factors do play a pivotal role in developing addiction (including childhood trauma, neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or family history of mental health illnesses or addiction), the truth is, addiction is a disease that affects all walks of life. It’s a very real and very aggressive mental health condition that adversely alters your brain.

According to the National Institute of Health, our brains are wired to repeat pleasurable activities; the neurotransmitter dopamine is central to this. In addition to producing an intense feeling of euphoria, drugs also release large surges of dopamine. These large surges thus teaches the brain to seek the drug despite the health, social and economic consequences involved. A powerful connection between consuming the drug and the resulting pleasure (along with all associative and external cues involved) is born, and so consequences be damned.

So how do we overcome these stigmas society has placed on addicts? How do we better understand? And how can a person battle their addiction, especially during a time when the world is virtually still on lockdown?

Mental Health Occupational Therapist, Michelle Murray, offers her guidance:

“What if addiction could be viewed the same way as diabetes? To be prevented and cured. I would like to see us get to the stage where we loved, respected and cared for all people with addiction just like we do those affected by other illnesses,” Murray says, in a recent article.  “It is possible to start treating it like other chronic illnesses so that the shame and stigma can be eliminated.”

Shame plays a huge role in addiction, according to Murray. Many addicts feel shame when they use and thus use to numb the shame. It’s a vicious cycle and a barrier to recovery. “Shame lives and breathes in silence and so lockdown is a breathing ground for shame,” Murray says.

In fact, shame has been growing during the pandemic. With in-person support meetings and therapy sessions suspended for many, routines have been uprooted. The inability to discuss their struggles openly with others has made managing their addiction extremely difficulty. And so the shame builds.

So what can you do to help yourself? Here’s what Murray suggests

  • Routine: Make a weekly schedule that allocates time for addiction support (phone/ online), social connections, self-care and leisure. Set goals each week to spend a certain amount of time engaging in each of these areas. Check out this video on how to create a meaningful routine:
  • Compassion: Show kindness to yourself, just like you would to a child or a loved one. Acknowledge that this is a hard time for you and that it will pass. It’s OK to have days that are harder than others. This is hard and you’re doing the best that you can.
  • Share the load: Empathy is the best way to eliminate shame. By telling someone about your struggles, whether it’s to a friend or in a counselling session, you are breaking down the issue, inviting empathy and making it all the more manageable.
  • Practice yoga and breathwork: this is a form of mindfulness that can help you to feel a sense of control and calm in your body. As addiction is felt and experienced within the body also, it’s important to learn how to manage urges and compulsions through your senses. Take a slow deep breath by counting in for four seconds, holding your breath for five seconds and breathing out for six seconds. You could also match this breathwork with a movement e.g. lifting your arms overhead as you breathe in and lowering them down again as you breathe out. This is yoga! I have more free accessible videos posted on my website here.

Now more than ever empathy, compassion and understanding is needed. An addict can be your neighbor, your friend or your family member. So deviate from prejudicial assumptions, open your mind, begin the conversation, create the safe space, foster respect, empower each other, envision positive energy, and I assure you we will get through this.