Addicts to Activists: Releasing the Stigma of Addiction is Key to Recovery

Growing up my parents drank alcohol excessively

on a daily basis creating a tremendous amount of pain for our family. I know that I am not alone since most people I know suffer from some form of addiction or know someone close to them who is really struggling. That is why the November 2017 issue of Toastmaster Magazine caught my eye. The cover story, “Turning Trauma into Triumph – how a former actor overcame his addiction and helps others to do the same”  is  about John Mabry who describes his 10-year addiction to opioids and alcohol. Painting a not-so-rosy picture of what he endured for over a decade, Mabry describes his agony as he repeatedly tried to get sober; spent tens of thousands of dollars on traditional recovery programs; and was shamed because he failed over and over again to stay sober.

November 2017 Issue/Toastmaster Magazine

November 2017 Issue/Toastmaster Magazine

Finally, on attempt number seven, Mabry succeeded.

His sobriety made it possible for him to win back his wife’s trust; keep his beautiful family together; and discover self-love and acceptance.  These positive changes helped to catapult him into a leadership position where he advocates for others who are struggling with addiction.

How he did it

John Mabry and his family.

John Mabry and his family.

Mabry finally found a program that focused on the core causes of addiction and relapse: past traumatic events and the stigma attached to addiction. As part of the program, through a trauma therapist, he was able to identify traumatic events from his childhood that showed up later in life as addiction. The treatment protocols focused on treating him with respect and understanding, not shame and judgement. Now an accomplished and sought-after public speaker, Mabry shares an important message with his audiences ...

I believe the stigma of addiction kills more people than the drugs.
— John Mabry
Fascinated by that message and his story - since alcoholism is part of my family legacy - I dove deep into the research. I identified the experts in the field of addiction and recovery; followed their blogs; watched their speeches on YouTube and TEDTalks; read a few of their books; and learned about how this cutting edge science – that calls for a paradigm shift in the way we treat addiction and recovery – can save lives and turn addicts into activists who help others. The following is a very brief summary of what I learned.

Addiction Defined

Tommy Rosen is an Addiction Recovery Expert and creator of the “Recovery 2.0: Life Beyond Addiction” program. His definition of addiction is as follows:

Any behavior you continue to do despite the fact that it brings negative consequences into your life.
— Tommy Rosen
Tommy Rosen, 24 years recovery

Tommy Rosen, 24 years recovery

Most of us are well aware of the most common addictions: drugs; alcohol; food; sex; over working; gambling, shopping, technology, and more. And some addictions are more socially acceptable than others, ie: it’s more acceptable to be a workaholic than an alcoholic. But experts agree that regardless of the type of addiction – the single factor that is at the core of all addictions is trauma.

The evidence is hard to deny: severe addicts in large scale population studies show that there is significant childhood trauma (occurring prior to your 18th birthday) in one or more of the following areas:

Dr. Vincent Felitti

Dr. Vincent Felitti

Using the ten events listed above, Dr. Vincent Felitti created a questionnaire in the mid 1990’s to help identify childhood events that could lead to future health problems across the lifespan. The “ACE” or “Adverse Childhood Experiences” questionnaire was born. For each “yes” of the ten questions, subjects score a “1”. Felitti, together with Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a landmark study from 1995-1997 using the questionnaire on over 17,000 participants. It was found that individuals who scored a total of three or higher were prone to addiction and other health and social problems. And it gets worse: the higher the score – the higher the chance of relapse. (To find out your ACE score, visit:

Once the cutting edge research was made available, many health care practitioners, frustrated with the ineffectiveness of drug and alcohol treatment centers, implemented the ACE’s questionnaire into their practices. Dr. Daniel Sumrock, a highly respected expert in the field of addiction and recovery, found the information gleaned from ACE’s a vital key to recovery and prevention. Known as the “The Addiction Doctor”, his credentials are impressive:

  • Board Certified Addictionologist;
  • Certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine; and
  • Certified by American Society of Addiction Medicine.

According to Sumrock , "…it’s not the drugs. It’s the ACEs…adverse childhood experiences”. He goes on to say, “Ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking (what traditionalists call addiction) is a normal response to the adversity experienced in childhood, just like bleeding is a normal response to being stabbed."

Sumrock states that he and other addiction experts agree that “addict” is a pejorative term, noting that we don’t call people with cancer, “cancer”, and likewise we should not call a person an “addict”. We should say they have an addiction.” He adds,

It’s not what’s wrong with you…it’s what happened to you.
— Dr. Daniel Sumrock

Other addiction experts, including Drs. Gabor Maté, Lance Dodes and Bessel van der Kolk agree that ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking should be treated with empathy, not shame. They stress this very important point: blaming and shaming re-traumatizes the person.

That last sentence really hit me at my core. We re-traumatize an addicted person every time we shame and blame.  Experts say there is also a tendency to dehumanize those with addictions – also known as “othering”. It makes me think about all the times I’ve been really hard on people … including myself; judging behaviors without having all the information. Literally adding insult to injury. No wonder it is so difficult, if not impossible, for some to dig out of the hole. And I truly believe that no child wakes up one day and says, ‘I want to be an addict when I grow up.’

But it begs the question: How does childhood trauma lead to addiction?

If we look more closely about how traumatic events experienced during childhood lead to addiction, the process can start with a traumatic event or an unmet need (ie: food, safety, love). In either situation, the child fails to thrive and neurodevelopment is disrupted. A consequence of disrupted neurodevelopment is a functional deficit in one or many areas at a critical time in the child’s developing brain. The functional deficit creates a host of social and health consequences. Constantly in survival mode, the stressed out child learns few if any life skills or coping mechanisms to prepare him/her for a healthy response when triggered by future events.

Mechanisms by which ACE's influence health and well-being throughout the lifespan.

Mechanisms by which ACE's influence health and well-being throughout the lifespan.

In many cases, as a child attempts to “fit in” and feel “normal”, he/she may be able to “fake it” and function for years, thus it is common for the actual addiction to not show up until later in life -- making it appear that the person is “weak”. But according to the experts, addiction can always be traced back to childhood trauma. Meanwhile, the unmet needs lead to substitutes. In example; if a child does not have love, he/she may use food to fill this unmet need; if a child is neglected, he/she may act out with behavior problems to get the attention they so desperately crave; or a victim traumatized by molestation may overeat as a protective mechanism to be unappealing to the opposite sex in an attempt to meet the need for safety.

Hungry Ghosts

Dr. Tara Brach

Dr. Tara Brach

According to Dr. Tara Brach, Psychologist and author of the book, “Radical Acceptance”, these unmet needs lead to feelings of worthlessness which in turn lead to the person using substitutes, “… that can’t possibly fill the void.” She says these unmet needs or voids are often called “Hungry Ghosts” that can create intense and insatiable cravings, creating a dangerous habit loop that intensifies over time. Brach, a sought-after meditation expert and speaker, teaches people with addiction that meditations focused on lovingkindness can help de-condition the “hungry ghosts.”  

Dr. Gabor Mate

Dr. Gabor Mate

Dr. Gabor Maté is a renowned addiction expert who wrote the bestselling book, “In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.” He echoes Brach’s opinion that the hungry ghosts can never be satisfied with substitutes. Maté advocates for a compassionate approach toward addiction, drawing on the cutting edge research based on science that clearly indicates the source of addiction is formed in the early childhood environment as a result of trauma and emotional loss.

The inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm are depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs and large, bloated, empty bellies. This is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment.
— Dr. Gabor Mate, from his book, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Hole in the Soul

A great example of an addiction resulting from an emotional loss is that of William Moyers, the son of famous journalist Bill Moyers. Now sober, William Moyers became addicted to drugs and alcohol at a young age, despite growing up in a very privileged lifestyle. Experts point out that addiction knows no boundaries—it can affect anyone--regardless of socio economic status, age, race, sex, or religion

Now sober, William Moyers describes addiction as a “Hole in Soul”. He says:  

I did suffer from lack of esteem and self-worth, comparing myself to my mother and father. Drugs took me out of the feelings of no self-esteem, this sense of despair, and put me somewhere else. It made it easier for me to face life for a while. (After a pause, he continued.) Then it came to where I couldn’t face life without getting high.
— William Moyers
William Moyers

William Moyers

In his book, “Broken: My story of addiction and redemption”, William Moyers includes letters from his father, which he says are “…a testament to a father’s love for his son, a father’s confusion with his son, and ultimately, a father’s satisfaction with his son.”

William Moyers needed the love, support and understanding of his famous father to help him recover from his addiction.


Chasing the Scream

Johann Hari, Author of, "Chasing the Scream". Hari’s TEDTalk by the same title has over eight million views.

Johann Hari, Author of, "Chasing the Scream". Hari’s TEDTalk by the same title has over eight million views.

In a quest to learn about why the “War on Drugs” did not work, Johann Hari, a British journalist, traveled the world for three years conducting research and interviews with people from all walks of life. Hari learned that isolation and shaming people is not the answer. In his book, “Chasing the Scream, the first and last days of the war on drugs” Hari writes,


…everything we thought we once knew about addiction is wrong. We must move past the shame of addiction.
— Johann Hari







Putting the pieces together.

In the absence of love, understanding and connection, there is a “hole in the soul”; there are “hungry ghosts”; and there are overwhelming feelings of not being “good enough” which result in deep feelings of despair and hopelessness. The substitutes serve only as a temporary relief and can never fill the void, thus shame increases and creates a vicious cycle fueling the downward spiral of addiction. In time, the increased shame and feelings of worthlessness increase the need for the substitute … creating a vacuum where more and more of the substitute is needed to escape the feelings of despair. The increased shame leads to isolation – causing the person with the addiction to pull further and further away from family and friends. Isolation breeds more isolation. And Isolation is the enemy to success. Experts agree that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety: it’s connection!

The Negative Effects of Addiction Affect Everyone

In some form or another we all suffer from addiction. These days we often turn to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, work, the internet and many other addictive obsessions in efforts to avoid feeling our discomfort. If we’re not addicted to the drugs, cigarettes or the typical vices then we are subconsciously addicted to fear, rejection, victimhood, etc. In some way we’re all addicted to negative patterns.
— Gabby Bernstein, Recovered 11 years, Author "Spirit Junkie"

There are a myriad of social and economic consequences associated with addiction: death & disease; increased crime; increased health care costs; shattered relationships, etc. It touches each and every one of us in one way or another which should motivate us to investigate further and try to help. What if these experts and former addicts are right? What if shaming and blaming is fueling the drug problem? It may fly in the face of some who may find it uncomfortable to accept a shift in their current beliefs about addiction and recovery. But there was a time when people believed the earth was flat; and once upon a time the ancients believed the earth was the center of the solar system. Once science proved otherwise, people learned that what they thought they knew about the earth and the solar system was incorrect, thus prompting huge paradigm shifts.

Paradigm Shift Can Help Turn Tragedy into Triumph

Moving past the shame of addiction and talking more openly about it is essential to saving lives.
— John Mabry

I invite you to consider John Mabry’s words: that it may be possible to save lives by removing the stigma attached to addiction – and understand that judgment and shaming our fellow humans is fueling the problem. The Bible says in Proverbs 17:22: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.” People do not need judgement and isolation. People need connection.

Having something to say and no one to hear it is so lonely.
— Glennon Doyle Melton

Glennon Doyle Melton is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. In her New York Times bestseller, “Love Warrior”, she writes, “Having something to say and no one to hear it is so lonely.” Maybe it’s time we stop and listen to what people with addictions are trying to tell us but can’t find the words. Maybe it’s time to move to a new understanding about addiction and recovery and turn tragedy into triumph.

At the very least, my hope is that we join the conversation.

Jami Hanna, BS

Jami Hanna, BS