Shame, like stigma, can be detrimental to one’s addiction recovery. But, they can also be obstacles to seeking help for one’s alcohol or substance use disorder. To be sure, anyone who has battled a serious addiction has done and said things for which they are ashamed. It is what we do with this shame that makes all the difference. Potentially the difference of living or dying.

Everyone, addict or not, wants to feel like they have it all together. They desire that their peers see a person who is strong, able to confront any obstacle in life. It is the illusion of perfection the society forces everyone to cling to, at times desperately. The reality is something altogether different. Nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes. But, some things that aren’t even mistakes are treated as if they are errors. Addiction is often viewed in that way by society. And the effect that it has makes those living with it believe that they are less than—rather than a part of.

We live in world where stigma causes shame, and shame can keep people from getting the assistance they gravely require. Addicts and alcoholics expel copious amounts of energy in an attempt to hold it altogether. Otherwise the facade of normalcy will come crashing down, and with it social and professional consequences. What but for mental illness, could convince people to risk their life for the sake of appearances?

Shame, Stigma and Addiction

This is a conversation that needs to be had, ad nauseam if that is what it takes to spread the message of the dangers of stigma, as well as, the detrimental effect of internal and external shaming. Reducing shame and stigma regarding mental health is not just the job of people working in the field of addiction medicine, or fall solely on addicts and alcoholics in recovery. The families of individuals who succumb to the disease can have a major role in this most important fight.

It is far too often the case that the families of people lost to the disease sugarcoat the cause of death. Or say nothing at all, short of ‘he/she lived, he/she died.’ Such families may think that they are preserving their loved one’s good name with little thought of posterity. It’s hard to fault them for such a mindset. In other cases, families are ashamed of their loved one’s choices, or even their illness.

You see, shame can keep people from getting help, but it also keeps families from talking about it. They do not mention that for years their son or daughter battled mental illness. Failing to say that their family member’s shame kept them away from the arms of recovery. But, more and more families have been speaking up, of late. The impact of which cannot be ignored.

Speaking Up About Addiction

If lately you have been following the news, then you may have learned that Nelsan Ellis (39), of HBO’s series “True Blood,” died earlier this month. His death was the result of heart complications due to alcohol withdrawal, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Through Nelsan’s manager, Emily Gerson Saines, his father shared the true cause of the actor’s death:

Nelsan’s father has bravely agreed for me to share the circumstances of Nelsan’s heart failure. Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own. According to his father, during his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control.

On the morning of Saturday July 8th, after four days in Woodhull Hospital, Nelsan was pronounced dead. Nelsan was a gentle, generous and kind soul. He was a father, a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, and a great friend to those that were lucky enough to know him. Nelsan was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life. His family, however, believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.

Addiction Treatment

There is no way to know for sure if Nelsan Ellis had sought professional help for his detox this time, the outcome would have been different. It doesn’t do any good to speculate. What is salient is that his family is underscoring the detriment of shame when it comes to seeking help, the first time, or the nth time. Addiction is a mental illness that requires professional help, the side effects of withdrawal are often too much to go it alone.

At Guardian IOP we are thankful Nelsan’s father made the brave choice to be candid about his son’s life and death. Hopefully, it reaches as many people as possible. If you are caught in the cycle of addiction, recovery is possible. Please contact Guardian today to start the lifesaving process of recovery.


Reviewed for accuracy by:

Anna earned her Masters of Social Work at Barry University in Miami, FL in 2017 and completed her internship in co-occurring disorders. Anna has a Bachelors of Art in Religious Studies from Naropa University and is a certified yoga and meditation instructor. Anna has received specialized training in somatic counseling with an emphasis on body-centered psychotherapy.