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How to Get Over the Shame You May Feel About Going to Rehab

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Every year, millions of people in this country go without treatment for a drug or alcohol problem because they feel ashamed about going to rehab and afraid of what others might think.

Such fears are understandable. People with addiction face greater levels of stigmatization, after all. Drug use was the most stigmatized condition relative to others (such as being homeless, being HIV positive or having a criminal record), according to a World Health Organization survey of 14 countries. (Alcohol use was the fourth most stigmatized condition.)

Americans also have significantly more negative opinions of people with addiction than of people with mental illness, a 2013 study by Johns Hopkins researchers found.

The good news is that stigma-related shame and fear ultimately don’t have to rob anyone of a fighting chance at recovery. On that note, the following tips are intended to ease any personal concerns about the process of going to rehab, including how to move past the judgement of others to put your recovery first.

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Remember that you have a right to medical privacy and confidentiality in the rehab process.

As a patient, you have privacy protections under state and federal law. For example, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Confidentiality of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Patient Records impose tight federal restrictions on the use and disclosure of private health information. Violations of these laws are punishable by fine. If you believe your patient privacy has been violated, you can file a formal complaint with the government.

Many states have added further legal protections that rehab providers must uphold in order to protect your privacy. Additionally, anonymity is a core principle of 12-step group therapies that may be offered in various programs. These programs follow the same standards as medical facilities.

Identify whether shame or fear is the bigger obstacle for you.

Shame is very internalized and takes time to contend with. Often it can be tied to feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness that have deep roots in the past. Sometimes shame can serve as an excuse to avoid treatment when in fact the real reason for resistance is fear-based. Some common fears include:

  • Having to let go of drugs or alcohol
  • Having to define oneself in the absence of drugs or alcohol
  • Setting goals that seem unreachable
  • Failure (or, on the reverse, success)

Practice airing these feelings with someone you trust.

It’s only normal to feel anxious and scared about next steps when you’re dealing with a drug or alcohol problem that has become unmanageable—especially if you’re considering rehab for the first time. Often, though, feelings of fear and shame have more negative power when they’re allowed to fester in secret. Getting these feelings off your chest, however vulnerable it may feel, can provide a healing release.

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Consider opening up to just one person you can trust. If you’re feeling unsure about who that might be, consider holding a free and confidential phone consultation with an addiction professional. Many rehab programs have counselors available 24/7 to answer questions and concerns. (The best rehab providers will also have counselors on-site at the facility, so that you’re able to meet them in person if you choose to tour the rehab center.)

Just one positive connection with another human being who understands what you’re going through, who can provide support and encouragement, is motivation enough for many clients to ultimately find recovery. In fact, many clients end up in treatment because of the support they received from someone they knew they could trust.

Keep your focus on the present goal of getting to rehab and how proud you’ll feel when you’ve stepped out in courage and taken the plunge.

Courage, by definition, is choosing to do something that scares you. Courage is also a powerful antidote to shame. Doing what scares you can be a critical first step towards moving beyond the shame and fear that are keeping you stuck in the same addictive behavior.

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When you go to rehab, you’ll be doing something very courageous that deserves to be celebrated: You’ll be taking responsibility for a medical condition that is treatable, as opposed to hiding in denial and allowing what you’re most afraid of to hold you back from a life free from addiction.

Once you’ve done your part in getting to rehab, you can work on the shame, fear and other core issues that are perpetuating your substance use disorder. You’ll start addressing these issues therapeutically in a residential rehab (following a medically supervised detox). By the end of 30-plus days of treatment, you’ll begin to feel much more self-accepting and free of shame.

Anna Ciulla is the Vice President of Clinical and Medical Services at Beach House Center for Recovery. She oversees the supervision and delivery of client care. Anna has an extensive background in psychotherapy and clinical management, including more than 20 years of experience helping individuals and families affected by addiction and co-occurring disorders find recovery.

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