Dealing With Addiction: What Does Stigma Entail?

10/10/2012 11:46 BST | Updated 08/12/2012 10:12 GMT

There are so many ways to address the issue of stigma, and those of us working in the addictions require a keen grasp of its many facets. Having experienced drug addiction myself, I should have an inside line on the meaning of it all. Yet unlike many of the drug addicted, I rarely feel the pinch personally. Perhaps it's just the way I'm put together. Opting as I do to identify as 'PhD, crackhead' is partly due to political savvy, but also indicates an attitude, a personality, perhaps a way of being that is often too cavalier to appreciate the vulnerability of others. Beyond that, the stature associated with success - along with a degree that basically says that Peter is clever so don't mess with him - has certainly rendered me less vulnerable than most.

A few weeks back, however, I learned a bit. I happen to like children very much, and dogs too. So I constantly interact with these creatures - human and canine - in my neighborhood. I saw two kids playing, they struck me as cute and lovable, so I watched them and smiled. Their caretaker, presumably their mom, said to me in a loud and shrill voice: "Why are you always looking at children?" I asked her to explain the question. She did not.

I walked away from it all with a sick, creepy feeling. I had been accused of something very unpleasant. Accuse me of murder and, knowing that I'm innocent, the accusation will roll right off me. Yet, somehow, this accusation stayed with me. As it happened, I was on my way to help a drug addicted friend in a jam. Caring for another helped me to get out of my own emotional garbage.

What people are suspected of, how they are perceived, the standards by which the court of social stigma can undermine the presumption of innocence - should be understood by any citizen concerned with creating a better world. What happened to me that day was hurtful. Imagine how it would have been had I been a more acceptable target - disheveled, on the fringe, starting a new job after five years of hard time - and you might get a sense of what many individuals go through each day.

I am white, male, heterosexual, educated and physically confident. Despite my ample experience as a crackhead, I really did miss out on some much-needed education. I got a taste that day, it felt horrible, and I will never forget.