When I began to openly admit I’m an alcoholic, I was embarrassed and scared. I grew up around addicts and didn’t consider myself to be anything like them, yet I was. The difference was that I didn’t abuse anyone other than myself. When people envision alcoholics, they envision drunks who have fallen so far from grace that they are seen as people who deserve what they get for their poor choices. I know folks imagine people like the family members I never wanted to become. I was afraid my friends and peers would see me as bad, unworthy, and unlovable—that is how I saw myself, after all. I was terrified I had let people down and lost their trust along the way.
I am very aware of the stigma around addiction and mental health in this country because I had years of internalized shame cycles that verified it. But recovery can only live in honesty, so I took a risk and put myself above whatever others might think of me and declared my illness. I received kindness, support, and love. If someone had come after me and publicly shamed me like Donald Trump (and Donald Trump Jr.) have done to Hunter Biden, it would have taken 100 times more positive comments to undo the one that I already held as my truth.
I didn’t think I deserved the depth of sustenance and celebration I received, but it’s what I needed to heal and move forward. It’s what all addicts need. I don’t believe in tough love or ultimatums and I certainly don’t believe in shaming someone for their drug or alcohol abuse. If I had been taunted or mocked the way Trump called Biden a loser or harassed the way Trump Jr. called him a “crackhead” while on the Glenn Beck show, I would have crumbled and my own negative thoughts about myself would have been confirmed. With support, I have worked hard to find self-worth and have learned that I am not my mistakes. What Trump did was dangerous and cruel and to say what he did on a national stage should be viewed as criminal; to prey on addicts in a way that will keep them from seeking help or will encourage relapse is luring them to their own death, while encouraging people to turn their backs on those who are struggling.
It’s hard to know the exact number of drug and alcohol related deaths, but roughly 88,000 people die each year in the United States as a result of alcohol. The opioid epidemic claims about 130 Americans each day because of overdose. Heroine, tobacco, cocaine, meth, sex, food, social media…the name of the addiction doesn’t matter, but the disease takes hold in ways that end relationships, jobs, and lives. Nearly 21 million Americans battle a substance abuse disorder yet only 10.4% of people with a substance use disorder seek help for their illness, according to the Surgeon General’s report on addiction. Addicts aren’t losers; we are friends, family members, employees, teammates, neighbors, and human beings who deserve respect and compassion. We are trustworthy, kind, and smart. Yes, some addicts turn to criminal behavior to sustain themselves. But someone who struggles with substance abuse is not inherently a bad person or a criminal.
Trump also claimed that Hunter Biden was dishonorably discharged from the Navy for drug abuse. This is another layer of victimizing Biden and assuming his acts were unforgivable. His discharge was administrative after a failed drug test and not dishonorable nor one that should invite other people’s shame. Hunter Biden took responsibility and through his lawyer said, “It was the honor of my life to serve in the U.S. Navy, and I deeply regret and am embarrassed that my actions led to my administrative discharge. I respect the Navy’s decision. With the love and support of my family, I’m moving forward.” Biden was one of many active duty military officers and veterans who are more likely to use and abuse substances than their non-military peers. People who serve are susceptible to PTSD, and of those people, 20 percent will also suffer from addiction.
The reasons for addiction vary, but genetics are a significant factor, and just like I can’t control the color of my eyes (without intervention), I can’t change the way my DNA is set up to react to certain environments and chemicals my body is exposed to. One’s level of serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate determine how drugs and alcohol influence a person too. Living environment, mental health, race, gender and sexual identity are also predispositions for addiction to surface and take hold. I didn’t choose to grow up in an abusive household, choose to be queer, or choose to struggle with mental illness, nor did I choose to become dependent on alcohol. But with intervention, I can treat my mental health and my addiction. I don’t believe I will ever be cured of addiction, but I know I can live a sober life.
Even with support and willingness to try sobriety, I relapsed a few times before I had my final drink to date. Even with supportive people holding me up, I was never honest right away when I fell down. I was ashamed, frustrated, and worried people would give up on me. When Trump ostracizes people by feeding on those fears and sinking into the stigma that addicts are meant to be tossed aside rather than embraced, he is far from presidential or diplomatic. He is putting people at risk–many of whom have likely voted for him by the way–because he only cares about himself. He is also a hypocrite because two days after Trump called Hunter Biden a loser for having been addicted to cocaine, he expressed his support for drug addicted Americans. He said his administration has a “unyielding commitment to breaking the grip of alcohol and drug addiction.” I’m not buying it.
Joe Biden, however, speaks the language I and all addicts need to hear: “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it, he’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him.”
Addicts need to talk about our pain, mistakes, and struggles without fear of blame or judgement. Yes, we need to make amends to the best of our ability. We need to take ownership of our choices, and we need to put in the work to live a life of recovery. But we also need an open door to let light guide us out of our darkness and allow us to access life-saving treatment.
If you are struggling with addiction, please know you are not alone. There are people who love you and resources to get you the help you need and deserve, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.