The “C” word or the “Big C”—that’s how people used to refer to cancer. To say the word aloud elicited shame, embarrassment and even self-blame for being diagnosed with the disease. Having cancer is difficult. Adding feelings of guilt, shame or embarrassment on top of other painful emotions, like sadness and anxiety, only intensifies that difficulty.
I think I first learned this lesson back in the 1980s from two films of that era. I seem to recall a scene in “Terms of Endearment” where Debra Winger tells her friend it’s okay to just say the word “cancer” after a scene in which the women she was with awkwardly avoided talking about it. The more humorous scene that stands out in my mind is from the film “St. Elmo’s Fire” when Mare Winningham warns Rob Lowe that her mother whispers words that are too “horrible to utter.” Sure enough, at the dinner table, the mother asks if anyone heard about Betty Rothberg… “cancer” she whispers in a dramatic undertone.
While cancer is not a comfortable subject and certainly people may find it difficult to discuss or may choose to deal with it privately, I would venture to say that most people will say the word out loud without any shame or embarrassment, whether talking about themselves or a loved one. There are hundreds of organizations who host benefits and fundraisers, research centers, treatment facilities and providers, all of whom have no qualms about saying the word “cancer.” Public education, awareness and open dialogue have resulted in destigmatizing the word.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the word “addiction” weren’t stigmatized anymore either? Although untreated substance use contributes to tens of thousands of deaths every year, people often do not seek help or treatment due to the stigma that surrounds people with addiction. People with addiction are often blamed for their disease, it being perceived as a moral failing or character flaw, when in reality it is scientifically proven to be a disease of the brain.
In the past year, we have received several calls from individuals from various Jewish communities across the country. Just by way of example of the damage stigma can cause, one mother whose child is struggling with addiction spoke to me about how she has no one in her community she can talk to—not the rabbi, the rabbi’s wife, her friends or even her family. On another occasion, someone called me about their spouse, who was abusing opioids (and possibly dabbling in heroin use) and, again, bemoaned the fact that there was no one to talk to about the situation because it was too embarrassing for the sufferer and the family. Time and time again, people speak about the shame they feel and how difficult it is to find help, and how hard it is for their loved one to pursue recovery because of it.
Addiction is an illness, and people from all backgrounds can get an addiction. It does not matter if you are rich or poor, what race or nationality you are, your sex or age—it can happen to anyone. We need to recognize that susceptibility to the brain changes caused by substances is due to factors outside a person’s control. Education, awareness and open discussions about addiction are a way to encourage people to reach out for help and seek recovery.
Effective ways for people to help reduce stigma include being compassionate and supportive to those in vulnerable situations, listening to struggles while withholding judgment, seeing a person for who they are and not the substances they use, learning about addiction and substance misuse and understanding the issues around substance-use disorders and addiction. As a general rule, if we treat all people with dignity, respect and kindness, no matter their struggles, this would go a long way toward the goal of eliminating stigma around this disease.
It’s like Debra Winger said back in 1983, “Tell them it’s OK to talk about the cancer!” In 2020, let’s now say that it is more than OK to talk about substance misuse and addiction.
Lianne Forman, a 28+ year Teaneck resident, is the executive director of Communities Confronting Substance Abuse (CCSA), the organization she and her husband, Etiel, founded in 2018. Lianne, a corporate and employment lawyer by training, and Etiel have five children and two grandsons. Through their own family’s struggles, they founded CCSA, a charitable organization committed to community education, awareness and prevention of substance abuse and addiction. See www.time2talkaddiction.org for more information.