The Double-Edged Sword: Lived Experience, Tokenism and the Portrayal of Addiction Recovery Stories

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On addiction and the dual-sided impact of sharing “real stories”

Battling the pervasive shadows of misinformation, stigmatization and shame that have historically enveloped alcohol and other drug use challenges, many courageous individuals in recovery have chosen to step into the light. Their chosen weapon against the prevailing misconceptions: the power of their personal narratives. Bringing the human face of addiction into sharp focus, these stories serve to demystify, personalize and humanize the realities of addiction and recovery.

Through the tireless efforts of advocates and the bravery of many, the narrative landscape of addiction and recovery has evolved over time into a complex tapestry that has been woven with the threads of personal stories and experiences. These are stories of strength and resilience, but ultimately humanness; filled with growth, emotion, joy, loss, trauma and triumph. They are potent forces in and of themselves and serve as catalysts for forging profound human connection, empathy and change.

When told correctly, these stories uplift and illuminate the often-misunderstood realities of addiction, breaking through the barriers of stigma to spark better understanding and stronger support for the empathetic treatment of substance use disorders. But, when told incorrectly, the same stories have the power to further stigmatize, stereotype and disempower those affected.

Despite best efforts to share lived experience and the phenomenology of addiction, the delicate waters of representation and authenticity are often, and often unknowingly, ripe with tokenism. Tokenism is the practice of making only a symbolic effort to include individuals who represent a certain group to give the illusion of inclusivity. Rampant across many areas of society, it is particularly prevalent in historically underserved, vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. Addiction is no exception.

The Power of Lived Experience and Real Stories

One of the most powerful forces driving social connection and inspiring change are the “real stories” of those with lived and living experience. Sharing real experience is a key mechanism that is effective in preventing, treating and recovering from a substance use challenge. Shared personal narratives promote social connection and shared accountability, validate the experiences of others going through similar experiences and promote feelings of understanding and solidarity. Peer support and lived experience have long played a crucial role in the treatment of addiction in America and are the backbone of 12-step and other self-help programs of recovery. Recent years have seen an enormous rise in the formalization of the role of peer support and lived experience within mainstream medicine with recovery coach and peer counselor roles.

Whether in a formal capacity or not, these narratives can be a source of inspiration, a motivator for change and a way to reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorders by offering an opportunity for others to walk in their shoes or peek through a small window into their world. Unfortunately, while sharing ones narrative has incredible power and proven positives, we also have seen a long history of abuses, where the sharing stories of addiction and recovery is translated into something that is potentially harmful to the individual and the cause.

The Risk of Tokenism in Substance Use Disorder Recovery

In the context of addiction recovery, tokenism can manifest as an oversimplification of the diverse and multifaceted nature of addiction experiences. It is the practice of making only a symbolic effort to be inclusive of members of a minority group, often by selecting a small number of stories or individuals as emblematic of the entire experience. When we single out one or a few “real stories” as representative of the entire addiction and recovery experience, we oversimplify a complex issue. Each person’s journey with addiction and recovery is completely unique and influenced by a myriad of factors like personal history, social environment and individual physiology.

Tokenism can also take the form of selecting or highlighting only certain parts or pieces of stories and excluding others. We see this very clearly in the mainstream media’s over-portrayal and emphasis on the stage of active addiction, with less time and weight given to treatment and recovery stages. This can lead to individuals being reduced to their addiction experiences, which may overshadow their identities beyond their substance use disorder. This reduction and over-emphasis on active addiction can inhibit the comprehensive understanding of addiction and recovery and breed stereotypes instead of empathy and respect.

Media Portrayal and The Dramatization Dilemma

It is no surprise that the mainstream media plays a central role in perpetuating stigmatizing narratives of substance use, whether intended or unintended. As far back as 4th century B.C.E. Aristotle proffered ethos as one of the three modes of persuasion, the technique of using emotional storytelling to affect others. As a social species, humans are drawn to the emotional and the negative, so, online and on TV, dramatized accounts of addiction are believed to be more likely to increase viewership and advertising sales. This results in “real stories” of addiction and recovery being reduced to harrowing withdrawal scenes, tense confrontational interventions and extended-coverage of drug-related crimes; scenarios that work to distort the context and reality of both the individual themselves and the condition of having a substance use disorder.

The media plays a crucial role in how society perceives addiction and recovery, and the dramatization of “real stories” of addiction obscure the reality that most people can and do recover from substance use, and go on to live happy, healthy and productive lives. When we unduly focus on the stories of only a few, or on only certain parts of the story, such as the darkest lows of active addiction, we run the risk of compounding the stigma and perpetuate falsehoods like addiction being a moral failing rather than a medical condition, or that recovery is a simple matter of willpower rather than a complex process involving physical, psychological and social healing.

When individuals share their substance use history, it is important to note that they are putting themselves at great risk for negative comment and discrimination due to the highly stigmatized nature of addiction. It is not unheard of for narrative disclosure to lead to lost job offers, housing opportunities or parental rights. These risks make it all the more important that individuals with lived and living experience are portrayed in ways that are authentic, balanced and productive, with an eye for minimizing any opportunity that the portrayal or characterization will cause additional harm.

Inside the dramatized depictions, we not only tokenize the individual sharing their story, we also negatively distort the understanding of and the resulting treatment of other individuals still experiencing substance use challenges now, and in the future. For individuals in recovery or those battling addiction, seeing such distorted narratives can induce feelings of shame, guilt and isolation. For others without direct experience with addiction, it can intensify stigma, fuel misconceptions and negatively skew opinions toward more punitive interventions.

Striking a Balance: Ethical and Respectful Storytelling

So, how do we strike a balance? Authentic and diverse representation of addiction and recovery is key. We must advocate for and engage in ethical storytelling that honors the complexity of each individual’s journey, emphasizing that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” path to recovery. We need to allow individuals sharing their lived experience to do so in a way that accurately weighs their work toward or in recovery, retains their individual agency and privacy and humanizes the individual as separate from their health condition.

We also can look to a subfield of journalism, known as solutions journalism, to avoid tokenization and present more nuanced and authentic narratives around stigmatized health conditions like substance use disorder. Instead of presenting the social problem, we present the response to the social problem. We focus on the details of how treatment and recovery are and have been used, and the methods that worked to propel individuals in active addiction into recovery. Solutions journalism weaves in evidence of results linked to the given response and even explains the limitations of those responses, which leaves breathing room for the many and varied pathways to recovery. By focusing on the details of problem response, we swap out the false contexts, victimization and sensationalized crisis state for actionable, authentic and empowering stories that advance information sharing and empathy.

Moving Forward

Sharing “real stories” of addiction and recovery holds immense power, but it is a double-edged sword.

At its best, these narratives are a potent force for positive change, social connection and empathetic treatment. At its worst, they emotionally injure and tokenize the individuals involved. They are oversimplified and misused in wider societal contexts by the mainstream media and further compound the stigma and fear of individuals with substance use challenges.

We can begin to change the way individual stories are portrayed in the media by honoring a diverse set of voices and holding a focus on problem response as opposed to the problem itself. We must continue to engage in dialogue about addiction representation and narrative, educating ourselves and others, to ensure that these stories are told in a way that respects, empowers and truly represents the individuals they’re about. After all, each “real story” is more than just a story about addiction — it’s a story about a real person.


Alexandra Plante
Senior Advisor, Substance Use Disorder in the Strategy and Growth Office
National Council for Mental Wellbeing
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