Going public with sobriety

Alcoholism is hardly a rare disorder in the United States. According to recent studies, 12.7% of adult Americans currently suffer from alcohol use disorder, more commonly known as alcoholism; according to other studies, 29% will meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder at some point during their adult lives.

If you add drugs to the mix, addiction (substance use disorder, including alcoholism) is even more common: it is estimated that in 2015, 20.8 million Americans met criteria for a substance use disorder within the prior year.

Given how common this problem is, one might think addiction would be readily accepted by our society, and that all one would have to do in order to get support is to admit one’s problem and ask for help. Right?

Unfortunately, drug and alcohol disorders, along with other mental health disorders such as depression, are among the most stigmatized of all maladies. Many people view substance use disorders through a lens of stigma, which often becomes internalized, and thus many people suffering from this disease have crippled self-esteem.

As a result, people afflicted with addiction and alcoholism generally tend to suffer in the shadows, to keep their suffering secret, and to refrain from asking for help, often until it is too late to right the course of their broken lives. They fear being looked down on, being despised, and being judged as having “bad moral character,” and for having deliberately chosen this unforgiving disease.

Reasons to go public

So, why did I go public with my story about becoming hopelessly addicted to prescription opiates?

To start, I came to believe that it was a question of life or death. There is much more to recovery from addiction than merely not taking drugs. There is a complex, interrelated process of personal growth and neurochemical healing, much of which boils down to the saying “secrets make you sick,” and, as a corollary, openness and honesty will set you free. I don’t know that there’s much in life that is more difficult than overcoming an opiate addiction, but if my entire social network knows about my struggles, they are there to support me, and to notice if I need help long before the wrong neurons start firing, drugs reenter the picture, and I start slipping.

Secondly, as a practical matter, like Huck Finn trying to remember which yarn he told to which person, it was just easier for me for everyone to know about my addiction, than (for example) to continue coming up with reasons why I didn’t drink alcohol. For a period of five years, I wasn’t allowed to consume alcohol in order to pass the drug tests to regain my medical license. This was no hardship, as I was never a big fan of alcohol. But what was a hardship was always coming up with a reason why I didn’t drink, as if this somehow threatened or imposed on the rights or enjoyment of whoever was offering me a drink. I realized that it was easier to just say, “I’m in recovery,” and I’d usually get “congrats” instead of “are you sure you don’t want a beer?”

(There are so many reasons why people might choose to not drink alcohol: alcoholism, medical problems, religious convictions, or just not liking it — why make them explain themselves? It is their business, and one might consider offering a nonalcoholic beverage and moving on to the next topic of conversation, without an insensitive interrogation of why they don’t partake.)

Finally, I was increasingly intolerant of the blatant discrimination directed at my brothers and sisters in recovery. Contrary to popular wisdom, we are people too. Not only that, but we have a lot to teach the rest of society, knowledge forged out of struggle and remorse (and therapy). Addiction memoirs are crucial windows into the lives of those who have fought and overcome this scourge. I thought that with my memoir Free Refills, I could make a statement against stigma, by confronting head-on the taboo subject of physicians and addiction. I wanted to demonstrate that anyone can get addicted, even (or especially) your well-meaning doctor, and that, provided they have some ability to grow and change, they are afforded the treatment they deserve, and — most importantly —no one gives up on them, everyone has a chance at recovery.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with people who are addicted except the addiction, which is treatable, and the only appropriate responses to this condition are compassion, solidarity, and support.


  1. Barb Fox

    Alcoholics and addicts in recovery who are actively working the AA program are working on personal growth and wise living choices that greatly improve themselves and their relationships. The Alanon program holds true for family members and friends of alcoholics and addicts. Alanon teaches loved ones the three C’s: you didn’t cause it, you can’t control and you can’t cure it. The alcoholic is the only one who can stop the substance use…and he has to reach a point where he wants to. When family and friends live the Alanon principles, the alcoholic is more likely to make a change. Thank you for your article. The stigmatism surrounding alcoholism and addiction must change, and the fact that it is a disease of the brain must be made known. It’s NOT a moral failing!

  2. Lisa

    When does a person dealing with addicts stop with the compassion and no longer support the addict? When does tough love take a stand?

  3. Dina Enberg

    Well said. Thank you.

  4. Diane Gervais

    Great post! Thank you! Addiction crosses all walks of life. It can happen to any of us. Getting it out in the open is crucial for Recovery. Diane RN in recovery.

  5. Deanna Darby

    Agreed that overcoming opiate addiction is absolutely brutal. I have struggled desperately. I am open about my past and hope that my story helps others. I have a chronic pain issue with my feet and ankles and am having an extremely difficult time with diagnosis and treatment. I go in with the sentence, I am in recovery. I still get weird looks from the drs and feel that I have been dismissed by many. Hopefully I can get some relief soon. I am very grateful for my circle of people that are supportive. Thank you for your openness. My primary Dr in Louisiana told me he was addicted and eventually died at 50 years old. This addiction does not know any boundaries.

    • Peter Grinspoon, MD

      Thank you for your heartfelt comments. I am sorry to hear about your chronic pain issues. Actually, 2 of my earlier posts might be relevant, “Treating Pain After An Opiate Addiction” and also “Medical Cannabis”. In my opinion, the most dangerous thing one can do is NOT treat the pain of someone in recovery adequately; that is just asking for trouble.

  6. Cathy Grigsby

    I do not have addition issues, but have two sons who do. Both have received treatment. One is sober and one isn’t. So I have thought a lot about this issue. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is about the social situation. Maybe in a big city you have options, but where I live there is literally no where to go in the evening to socialize with other humans except bars. This is just wrong. I wonder if anyone out there has some creative ideas.

    • Connie

      I had to change every aspect in my life once I got sober. Socially, AA became my social outlet in the evening. I live in a small town and I immersed myself in Recovery. I made 45 or 50 close friends at the meetings and I live a fantastic life. I knew I’d die (poison myself) in under 6 months if I went back to drinking. I’m 10 years sober and it’s amazing. Everyone I hang out with (except family) is in the 12 step programs and sober/clean. So – go out for coffee or pizza before or after a meeting. Invite people over to your house if there’s no where else to go. You don’t have to change much…just everything.

  7. Brianne Fitzgerald

    Recovery comes from within. Part of the process is to let go what others think of you. I have seen too many people who use the stigma card as a way NOT to do the work. Peter, I admire your work and your recovery, but stigma ain’t the issue

  8. David McDonald

    Thank you everyone. There’s so many people who think it’s all just a choice. That is so far from the truth. It is our choice to seek help once we know there’s a better way of life that’s possible for us. Trying to climb out of that hole we are in is what’s so hard. We have no self esteem or self worth left that we don’t even think we diserve to.

  9. Peter Faulk

    Thank you for the Article. I’ve done the whole addiction, self harm, near death thing. Now, as a marketer, I run #soberworldorg – Promoting simply “Stress Education” – ans Positively Eliminating Addictions through education, brain training , encouraging reduction of Dopamine inducing stimulating activities, self help and more. Yes, compassion, solidarity, and support … sure – and also absolutely rocking coherent living, sleeping better, reducing cancer risks, better relationships, save money, less stress, less anxiety. We rock the Party Coherent concept – and having fun being normal, living without cancerous neurotoxins. pf

  10. Harold A Maio

    —-Unfortunately, drug and alcohol disorders, along with other mental health disorders such as depression, are among the most stigmatized of all maladies.

    I am not sure what anyone accomplishes in using the term “stigmatized”.

    Misunderstood is without bias.

    • Peter Grinspoon, MD

      Understand what you are saying and appreciate your input; unfortunately, they are misunderstood AND stigmatized (people have negative associations with people suffering from addiction, not just lack of knowledge…). If it were just a question of misunderstanding, our job would be easier!

  11. Diane Thomas

    Thank you, Dr. Grinspoon, for having the courage and compassion to share your story with both the public and the medical community. Compassionate care is a laudable goal and certainly within reach!

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