September 2017

Break Free from the Shame of Substance Abuse

By Scott Swanezy, LCSW


One can argue that the difference between substance abuse and addiction is slight.  The principle difference is tolerance.  The user needs to use more of a substance in order to achieve a high.  However, those of us living with an active substance user have little time to know the distinction; we worry about loved ones hurting themselves, selling whatever we own to buy substances, concerned about what others think and bounce between denial and desperation in figuring out how to help those afflicted by substance use.


So, what causes so much shame?  Substance abuse is common in our neighborhoods.  Remember, plenty of addicts go to work daily and are able to perform at their jobs.  Do we only see the person in front of us struggling with their substance issues and think, “What will my neighbors think of me and my family?”  The reality is that most of us know someone struggling with substances.  Is it possible that we say, “Yes, but…?”  Reality has taught us that admitting to the problem opens up the possibility for help.  There is power in numbers, especially the power in the number of addicts willing to admit a problem by beginning to let go of their struggles with substances.


Information is invaluable if we are to educate ourselves around substance abuse and addiction.  Websites such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services ( provide credible, useful information and data for the uninformed. Take a look, you have nothing to lose by gathering information which may help us better understand how to deal with our loved ones.  Coming out of the dark and into the sunlight tends to empower us when navigating the battlefield of addiction.  It also begins the process of leaving shame behind, while finding strength with information and connecting with others.

“Strength in numbers” - we need support in order to address the damage substances bring into our lives.  The most accessible support is self-help groups.  One of the most well-known groups is Alcoholics Anonymous, however, there are a variety of self-help groups such as Narcotics Anonymous.  The purpose of these groups shows us that we are not alone in our struggles. Addict helping addict is a powerful modality.  When I listen to someone talk about their problems, and those problems sound like my problems…if I really listen, a crack in my veneer may occur and some light may shine into my dark room.  I may begin to open myself to someone who shares my burden.  This is typically the beginning toward the work needed in order to break the shackles of addiction.


In a perfect world, anyone seeking to break addictions and seek support may find the following path of support useful: an inpatient program, followed by an intensive outpatient program, private therapy (including group specific therapy), self-help group participation, exercise, a job (paid or volunteer), spiritual/church practice and family support.


One of you is thinking: “You are kidding, right? No way!”  If we can gather most of the proceeding support suggestions, the addict has a good chance of living substance free in the first year of abstinence.  Supports are critical for someone struggling with substance because we are accustomed to established behavior that keeps us safe from our inner struggles, but keeps us using. Breaking down the behavior, beginning to understand the damage we cause ourselves, and having trusted, non-judgemental support goes a long way to building the skills to live a life free from substances.


Scott Swanezy LCSW is an addiction and substance abuse counselor in Westchester County. He can be reached at 914-434-9945 and visit for more information.







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