The Student News Site of Sonoma State University

Sonoma State Star

The Student News Site of Sonoma State University

Sonoma State Star

The Student News Site of Sonoma State University

Sonoma State Star

Addressing addiction without the stigma

US society isn’t just failing to address the crisis — it’s perpetuating it.

Addiction swallowed years of my life whole. By 15 years old I had gone from an honor-roll student to ditching every class in pursuit of substances. I was transferred to a continuation high school with almost no credits earned.

At the same time, the love of my life was becoming a shell of who he used to be. His substance use had progressed from Oxycontin to heroin. After dropping out of UC Santa Cruz, he was arrested for possession of heroin, and from there he spent years in and out of jails and institutions.

By 21, I had accumulated two DUI convictions and I had also dropped out of college, forfeiting all of my childhood dreams in trade for drugs and alcohol. Blackouts led to countless mornings of unbearable regret. Yet still, I was convinced I was just “partying” and that this life was preferable to the monotony I perceived normal life to be. 

By the time I was 22, my partner had successfully completed a 14-month program called Drug Court. On his final day of that program, he relapsed on heroin. He was one of the 52,404 recorded lives lost from a drug overdose in 2015. He was only 25 years old when he took his last breath. 

Substances became my only way to cope. Three years later, I was arrested for my third DUI at the age of 25, which understandably earned me the reputation from a Superior Court judge as a “threat to human life.” I was subsequently sentenced to a 14-month program with an alcohol monitor strapped to my leg.

These experiences left me rattled for years to follow, and desperate to understand why some of us seemingly ‘choose’ to put our lives and others at stake. I am endlessly grateful that I made it out alive, avoided irreparable harm to others, and found recovery, but addiction doesn’t end with one choice to quit. It’s an ongoing challenge to exist in a world with constant temptation, and to rewire neural pathways that consistently tell me a drink would alleviate my stress or make my life more “fun.” 

I have lost count of the many others in my community who have died far too soon. These deaths are tragic and avoidable. I have come to understand in these past 9 years of grieving that a life-ending from substances cannot be merely reduced to an individual choice. There are countless aspects of our society, in tandem with genetic predisposition, that perpetuate substance use disorder and fail to treat it.

According to figures from the CDC, addiction has killed more Americans than all U.S. wars combined. Despite this startling death toll, there is a lack of urgency for preventing the loss of life. This underwhelming response is a stark contrast to the reaction to COVID-19, which shut down the world in March 2020 and sent a shockwave of concern for human life all over the globe. 

If we know substance use disorder is life-threatening, particularly for younger populations, why has it not been treated as a crisis? One explanation is that public opinion of “addicts” still influences our collective response. Addicted people are not always seen as fully human.

According to an article by Teneile R. Brown at the National Institutes of Health, “Addiction is one of the most stigmatized social disorders, with ‘addicts’ being described as ‘filthy junkies’ who do not deserve social support or empathy.” 

Hali Brenner, a first-year graduate student majoring in English at SSU said her experience as an addict in recovery often feels “silenced and dismissed” on campus. 

“When I first came to campus I felt like I had ‘felon’ and ‘addict’ blasted on my forehead. Some days, I still do,” Brenner said she often feels weighed down by her past and struggles to believe she belongs in a master’s program. Despite this, she has persisted in her efforts and advocates for others like herself as the president of the Rise Above club at SSU. Rise Above serves to provide hope for previously incarcerated students. 

Historically, the War on Drugs has criminalized the behavior rather than treating the disease, and it disproportionately targeted communities of color, low-income communities, and border control. This perpetuated a lasting and dangerous misconception that certain people— like white college students, upper-middle-class professionals, or suburban families— are immune to addictive behavior. The reality is, that addiction affects humans from all walks of life.

It is only recently that addiction was recognized as a medical condition rather than a moral deficit. Still, social stigma creates fear and shame, and therefore a substantial barrier to recovery. Of the estimated 54.6 million people who needed help for a substance use disorder in 2022, only 26 percent received treatment. 

While we are bombarded with messages about the dangers of fentanyl, there is very little discussion about why someone would want to use it in the first place. Furthermore, the focus on the dangers of a specific drug insinuates that if we somehow effectively eradicated that drug, our problem would be solved. Our history with the prohibition of alcohol can tell us otherwise. Today, alcohol contributes to approximately 178,000 deaths annually. This isn’t simply because alcohol exists. Supply responds to demand, not the other way around.

It was all I really knew when I was growing up,” Brenner said of her addiction. “It is where I was most comfortable, running the streets and using anything to get away from the pain that I had endured from a young age including neglect, sexual abuse, extreme violence, and raising myself and my infant sister from a young age of five or six, since my parents were in their own addictions and fighting their demons.”

Brenner has been clean since 2016.

Policies, healthcare, and media coverage tend to focus heavily on the symptoms of addiction while dangerously ignoring the underlying causes of its prevalence in our society. 

We live in an era of consumerism and immediate gratification which profits the economy while it harms our mental and physical health. Another part of the problem is that our pain is often apathologized in American society, where anything other than happiness or material success is viewed as an abnormality.

‘Just Say No’ rhetoric continues to be the overarching message to prevent addiction. This places undue responsibility on the individual, in a world where drinking alcohol and using drugs is promoted as a form of social bonding, enhancing capabilities, or numbing pain. 

Bri Diebert, a fourth-year human development major at SSU said “Unfortunately the pressures to fit it are often stronger than the preventative care.”

Diebert said her own addiction progressed in part because of “societal pressures and internal insecurities that left me feeling isolated and overwhelmed. The need to be liked within a society that did not value authenticity, at least at the time, made it difficult for me to live a life without the help of substances.”

“Had I not been confident in my own sobriety, this would have been a challenging environment to feel safe to share my addiction struggles and recovery journey,” she said.

While the economy profits inextricably off of advertising and selling alcohol, warning labels to “consume responsibly” fail to capture the reality of addiction. Furthermore, Big Pharma has pushed pills as an instant fix for physical or emotional pain, lining their pockets with a global revenue of $1.42 trillion in 2021 alone, while drug users and street drug dealers have historically filled our nation’s prisons

Natalie B., an associate marriage and family therapist and SSU alumna who majored in sociology, said that despite having financial stability growing up, she did not have someone to teach her how to trust herself. “I remember from a very young age watching my dad drink daily. What I learned from watching him was that alcohol is something to be used to deal with life,” she said. Natalie agreed to share on the condition that her last name not be used in the article.

Natalie said she was sent to a psychiatrist at 13 years old after losing interest in school and developing aggressive behaviors. She was then diagnosed with depression, ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. “Looking back, what I needed at this point was for someone to acknowledge this pain I was experiencing and help me see I wasn’t crazy,” she said. Instead she learned early on that medication was the only way to manage her emotions.

“The last week of undergraduate, I was drinking fifths of alcohol trying to edit my final paper,” Natalie said, “and having my mom get me more alcohol just so I could finalize my paper. I’ll never forget the misery of laying in my bed, sick and still drinking, feeling alone.” 

Natalie got sober in 2018 and graduated with her Master’s degree in 2023. She has worked in the mental health and addiction treatment field for over 5 years. “I spend a lot of time thinking about my younger self, that 13-year-old who carried so much pain and just didn’t know what to do with it. In my future work with youth and adolescents, I want to be able to be what I needed at that age,” she said. “I want to hold space for their pain while acknowledging where it came from, as opposed to trying to control and manage it through ‘fixing.’”

I have been clean since 2018, and I could not have done it alone. By staying clean, I am able to honor the life my partner did not get to live. Recovery has opened doors to possibilities I had given up on because addiction was destroying my life. I’ve had the privilege of working as an addiction counselor, where I get to witness human beings come back to life from a state of despair. 

Today I strive to stay part of the solution, rather than the problem, because I know intimately well the ripple effect of pain that addiction has on the lives around us. 

In the 12-steps of A.A., N.A., and many forms of therapy, the first step is about awareness. When we can honestly acknowledge our destructive behaviors, we are able to make positive changes. With effort, the same can be done on a collective level.

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About the Contributor
Tess Wilkinson
Tess Wilkinson, Staff Writer
Tess Wilkinson is a fourth year Communication major at Sonoma State.
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