Sometimes I think it’s no wonder that so many of us get stuck in bad habits when people in the position of authority often – and perhaps unwittingly – minimize our struggles. The best example I can think of is the “Just Say No” campaign introduced by Nancy Reagan back in the 1980’s. While I can appreciate the good intention, it definitely seemed to be a gross oversimplification of a massive problem that has only grown exponentially in the 30-plus years since the movement was introduced. Just Say No became a catchphrase for a decade and it’s interesting to think that this likely did nothing to help, and may have only worsened, the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Think about it: “the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997.” If you can’t or don’t say no then what does this mean about you? You got duped? You’re a criminal? You deserve wherever it is you end up? Shame only keeps us stuck and it’s amazing how often we’re shamed for the things that we turn to, that get us through difficult situations. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, sex, food (or lack of), you name it – sometimes these things can seem like the only viable relief out there. It’s not to say we don’t likely make bad decisions along the way, but when you look back it’s really not all that surprising to see how addiction set in when choices may have seemed limited. Maybe the problem is that we don’t always know how to ask for help, but regularly I hear stories of when someone did ask for help and didn’t get any, simply because the problem didn’t appear to be of significance at the time. In one way or another their story was diminished.
Addiction hits us hard in the reward centers of our brains. Of course we want to feel good, who doesn’t? Addiction is about taking the shortest point from A to B where A is pain and B is feeling better and our brains are really great about getting us there asap. The problem of course is that while this is super effective in the short term, few can anticipate the longer, harder and sometimes lonelier road it takes to get your life back on track once the cons of addiction become apparent (ie serious medical conditions, loss of relationships, loss of work, etc).
I think the danger is when we begin to minimize our own stories; we follow what was modeled for us and internalize the same message. And maybe it is because the struggle appears to be invisible. Or maybe because it feels too big for anyone to tackle on their own. When you take the time to connect with your Healthy Self, **You** know when something is a problem. And you know when it’s something bigger than others may be able to recognize at the moment. We don’t have to believe minimizers in the same way we don’t have to believe judgment – whether it comes from others or comes from within.
I’m bringing this up, not because I want to shame the diminishers, minimizers and gross oversimplifiers – as that would likely be counterproductive. My point is that throughout history we’ve seen how huge problems can go by seemingly unnoticed. And thankfully we can also look back and see that while the authority figures we hoped would address problems in a meaningful way but for whatever reason chose not to or were unable to, there was usually an unsuspecting someone (or many someones) who were more capable and who did take action. Just because no one has a quick fix, it doesn’t mean that the bigger problems can’t be solved. Bigger problems call for bigger solutions and this can mean turning to more than one person or place for help. Part of resilience is believing in yourself and not giving up no matter how long it takes – finding the resources that support you even if they don’t come in the form you may have wished.
One important thing to remember is that diminishing/minimizing/oversimplifying is only part of who we are, only a part of who anyone is. My hope is that when we begin to increase awareness of this phenomenon, we’ll also be better able to generate compassion towards self and others and use that as a way to move forward.