Addiction is a disease. Despite years of narrative to the contrary, it is not a mental or personal shortcoming. It is a medical condition affecting the brain of those who have sadly fallen into its grips. The shame that comes along with disease has been one of the greatest barriers to success in fighting it. Recently, there has been an important shift. People are talking about it. They are talking about their own addictions, their fights for recovery, their hard-earned successes. Families and friends are talking about those who haven’t been so lucky.
Over the past year, an increasing number of obituaries written for those who’ve succumbed to overdose have stated that fact plainly and without shame. Many of them have gone viral. Typically, an obituary for a person who’s died in these unfortunate circumstances would say simply that it happened “unexpectedly” or “at home”.
Those brave enough to shine a light on the real story, for everybody to see, have done a service to the addiction community. The stigma surrounding the disease is beginning to fade. People are educating themselves and, in the midst of this widespread opiate epidemic, coming to terms with the fact that those suffering are their neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members – not those down and out on the streets.
These powerful messages are able to show the many ways in which addiction affects homes, families, friends, workplaces and communities. For the bereaved, it can be a complicated decision. Talking to the Bangor Daily News in Maine, Andrew Bossie said this of his choice to include the cause of death in his brother’s obituary: “I just said I don’t think we should be ashamed of this. It’s better than sweeping it under the rug and I think if it helps someone else, then fantastic.”
That obituary got so much traffic, it crashed the funeral home’s website. People are eager to learn that they’re not alone in this fight – whether battling substance abuse themselves, or loving somebody who is.
Years before her death, Elizabeth Sleasman from Washington State wrote her own obituary. In it, she pleads with teens and parents to stay away from drugs and intervene when necessary. She describes the hard turns her life took, and all the negatives that come along with addiction. Part of her powerful warning reads:
“You will become a thief and a liar, next you will lose your family, your ‘real” friends, and eventually your life. I started with marijuana and alcohol. It did not take very long for me to be so hooked on hard drugs that I could not have quit if I wanted to. Some of my closest ‘friends’ overdosed and died; I did not quit. The light of my life, my daughter, was taken away – even then, I could not quit.”
Katherine Seelye of The New York Times weighed in on the diminishing shame and stigma surrounding addiction, writing: “Now, addicts, law enforcement officers and policy makers are all pushing to treat drug abuse as a disease and a public health crisis, not a crime or moral failing, and families are confronting addiction publicly in new ways, through rallies, online and in unvarnished obituaries.”
Sharing a loved one’s story this way isn’t for everybody, but – if you’re comfortable doing so – it sure is powerful.
If you or someone you love needs help and support for an addiction, Spectrum Health Systems and the New England Recovery Center are here 24/7. We meet you where you’re at, regardless of the level of care needed and amount of monetary resources available to you. Learn more on our website or call us at (844) 233-6372.