Stigma can make you distrustful. Stigma can make you afraid to accept help even when someone reaches out to you. Until we come together to reverse the stigma surrounding substance use, stigma will keep winning.
I was reviewing a recent Amazon order, scrolling down to find the right recipient of the Valentine’s Day gift I was purchasing when I saw her name: Janine. It’s been more than a year and a half since I last sent a gift to my best friend. That’s because on June 25, 2019, we lost her to a fatal heroin and fentanyl overdose.
Janine and I met in preschool and from that day until her last day, we were inseparable. She knew me better than I knew myself and that feeling, I thought, was mutual. What I did not know then was that stigma and fear would ultimately steal my best friend’s life.
The girl who once told me everything never told me that she had started using heroin. She was afraid. Afraid that I would judge her, afraid that I would abandon her, afraid that I would no longer love her.
I told her I loved her. I sent her letters and gifts and Narcan while I was away at nursing school. I drove down to see her when I had time off to encourage her to seek treatment and to remind her that I would never turn my back on her.
A few months later, she decided to enter a treatment program and would go on to spend the next nine months substance-free. We were all so proud of her for achieving the goal she had set out for herself. She was able to see her children again. She was working a full-time job again. She was living on her own again and making the choice every day to live drug and alcohol free.
But fear and stigma would strike again. Janine quietly resumed her drug use at the same time she resumed another old habit: distancing herself from her loved ones. Janine was afraid. Afraid that the new life she had made for herself would come crashing down. Afraid of the stigma associated with drug use: stigma she feared would cause her to lose her new job, lose her family and friends, lose her children.
Although we never stopped loving her, she was too afraid to confide in us. Who knows what would have ultimately happened, but if it were not for the stigma associated with substance use, Janine may have felt that she could share her resumed drug use with us and we could have been there for, and with, her. We could have stayed with her while she used and been there to reverse her overdose with Narcan. We could have helped her to talk out what her recovery goals were and worked with her to make them a reality. We could have shown her that she was not alone.
I want them to know what Janine was too afraid to believe: that stigma will not win. That love never fails. I am so grateful to have found Shatterproof and to have met so many people through this organization who believe that love can beat stigma and that we can beat addiction.
Together, we can end the stigma surrounding drug use. Together, we can make sure that no one dies alone because of fear. Together, we are stronger than addiction.
Andrea Miller is a Shatterproof Ambassador.