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The first time my drug use came to light, it was because of a random drug test that I had to take during my junior year of high school.
I was the principal’s assistant, an honor roll student, and a theater star. At home, I hid in my parents’ basement getting high and stealing alcohol from their liquor cabinet.
Upon finding out that I would be subjected to the random urine test, I was terrified. My arms shook and my heart raced. I knew I was going to fail. (Editor’s note: In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of randomly drug-testing high school students engaged in many extracurricular activities.)
I tried everything possible to get out of the test. I asked to go to the nurse’s office because I felt sick, but they refused to send me home. I even asked the principal if I could take the test next week since I was on my period, but he simply told me that my period wouldn’t affect it. I had to take the test.
The person administering the test didn’t watch me, so I tried diluting the sample with toilet water. The temperature was too cold. I had to take the test again, this time, honestly.
When the results of my drug test came back positive, the principal pulled me into his office. I was sure that I would face consequences. I was dreading having to tell my parents the truth. I didn’t want them to know that I was using drugs. I didn’t want to be seen as a failure.
Normal protocol was to send students who failed the drug test to a substance-abuse class at the juvenile detention center and ban them from participating in after–school activities. However, in my case, the positive drug test was kept a secret. I was allowed to continue doing theater and didn’t have to go to the substance abuse class. Nobody wanted to admit that a star student had a drug problem. My addiction was nurtured and kept safe. I continued to get worse.
Perhaps this could happen anywhere. But my experience growing up in a small town in the Arkansas Ozarks tells me that it’s especially likely in a rural area. In my town, everything was hush-hush on the surface. But people loved to gossip. Eventually, friends and family started to talk about me. They were more than willing to share information about my drug use, but nobody was willing to destigmatize my problems and offer me a solution.
When the truth finally came out, I wasn’t viewed as a sick person trying to break an addiction. I was seen as an untrustworthy and unreliable waste of human flesh. I wanted to get sober, but I was terrified to ask for help.
The Problem with the Word “Reputation”
In small towns, a family’s reputation can be everything. Some families become obsessed with maintaining a facade that everything is perfect. God forbid somebody makes light of a dark situation in order to reach out for help and support. When your reputation is one of a successful, happy family, your biggest fear becomes the gossip about what you are doing wrong. Families don’t want to talk about their daughter who has been failing classes because she’s too busy taking care of her little brother while her parents work two jobs. They don’t want to talk about their son who’s been arrested for the third time for fighting in school because he doesn’t know any other way of coping with his anger. They certainly don’t want to talk about the girl with mental health issues who has found her solution in a bag of dope and a needle.
Well, I do. I want to talk about it.
Social and Cultural Norms
A variety of factors can limit a person’s willingness to seek help for substance abuse. In rural areas, two of the biggest are social and cultural norms, according to a University of Tennessee study.
It can be hard to keep your privacy in a small town. If an individual does go to treatment where they live, they risk being recognized by staff or another participant. If an individual goes somewhere else for treatment, their sudden absence might raise questions. Either way, fear of damaging one’s reputation interferes with recovery.
Sadly, these fears are not necessarily misplaced. When I went to treatment 1,500 miles away from home, I met a woman there who was from my hometown. It was an unlikely coincidence, but it happened. She did her best to keep her treatment secret because she feared losing her job and facing judgment from others upon her return home. Unfortunately, she became the subject of gossip. As a result, she lost her job, even though she was on an approved paid leave. It seems wrong that an employer can call a person who is doing everything they can to get healthy an “unreliable employee,” but it happens.
Breaking the Stigma
The first step in shattering the stigma around addiction is to talk about it. This isn’t easy. We are more likely to have a negative attitude toward people who suffer from addiction than those who suffer with mental illness. Much of this has to do with a lack of understanding.
By sharing personal stories of suffering through addiction and finding recovery, the public can become more understanding and supportive. Learning about these experiences allows people to view individuals with substance–use disorder as sick rather than immoral. The more that people view addiction as they do mental illness, as a disease rather than a choice, the more we can help. If communities continue to view addiction as a moral failure, people won’t seek help because they fear ruining their family’s reputation.
There are websites such as Heroes in Recovery that allow people to share their stories and advocate breaking the stigma around addiction. There are also organizations such as Care Center Ministries that educate people about addiction issues and advocate for people in ways that make them more comfortable reaching out for help. When I sought help, Care Center Ministries is the only organization I felt safe reaching out to. They treated me like a real human being and encouraged me to get help. Today, the man who helped me get into treatment serves as a school drug and alcohol-abuse prevention counselor. He meets with every student each month in a one-on-one session, does educational workshops about drug abuse, and speaks freely about addiction so students may feel comfortable going to him if they need help.
To me, courage means walking through fear. People who speak out about drug addiction in small towns and rural areas are courageous. Breaking the stigma is the first step toward saving more lives.
Cassidy Webb is a writer who advocates spreading awareness on the disease of addiction. Her passion in life is to help others by sharing her experience, strength, and hope.
The Daily Yonder’s “Speak Your Piece” is a guest column that explores diverse topics. The views and opinions expressed in “Speak Your Piece” are those of the author, unless otherwise stated.