"For me, the key was to throw away the stigmatizing labels people had of me and not wear them like an overcoat."
By Andre Kennedy
What does recovery mean to me? It means discovering who I really am, not who I was trying to be. I had to see past the stigma and overcome the negative labels and perceptions that I had for myself and that others had of me.
I first experienced stigma at a very young age. I never knew my biological family and lived in a foster home. Other children teased and bullied me about it. Peer pressure, bullying and other abuse did a number on me and by the time I was a teenager, I was full of so much anger, pain, and resentment.
At the age of 17, I started drinking – beginning with some rum I took from home one morning before school. I drank the bottle at the bus stop and ended up passing out in my first period class, waking up in the hospital.
I hated myself and couldn’t see anything good in my life. Things got worse.
Along with the drinking, I began using drugs, and within a year, I was incarcerated at the age of 18. After two years in prison, I came home but I started using alcohol and drugs again to drown out the pain I had known since I was a kid.
I became homeless and stayed lost for many years, going in and out of prison for a series of convictions. I wasn’t a criminal; I did what I needed to survive and feed my addiction.
I went to New York City to try to change my life but I took everything with me. After several years in New York City, I came home to Baltimore. I went in and out of drug treatment but I hadn’t really committed to my recovery.
Eventually I started to look hard at my life and myself. I realized that for my whole life there was something greater than myself that was keeping me alive and moving forward—God. Recovery has been a spiritual journey. I realized God had to help me change how I thought about myself.
People defined me by stereotypes and negative behavior. I began to understand that there is nothing really wrong with me and that it is ok to accept myself as I am.
For me, the key was to throw away the stigmatizing labels people had of me and not wear them like an overcoat.
Today, I work as a peer recovery specialist, using my lived experience to help other people in their recovery, counsel them on how to manage the symptoms of their disease and build resiliency to cope with life’s demands. I tell them it’s possible, but it may not be easy and can take a long time. Recovery is more than not using drugs or alcohol; it’s an inner transformation that involves improving emotional health and wellness.
Given my own experience and working with people in recovery, I know there is a lot to do to end the stigma towards people with a substance use or mental health disorders. If someone has a behavioral health disorder, that’s just one part of who they are. Negative labels, like “addict” or “crazy” are harmful to the recovery process.
Every person is unique—we all have strengths and challenges. We need to see the whole person, rather than judging people based upon a label. We need to see past the stigma.
Spread the See Past the Stigma Campaign
BHSB created the See Past the Stigmacampaign to raise awareness about the stigma around behavioral health disorders. If someone has a mental health or a substance use disorder, that’s just one part of who they are. We need to see the whole person, rather than focus on a label.
Bmore POWER advocate Ronald Barksdale shared his story of overcoming stigma and finding hope in serving others with Bmore POWER. Please share his story through social media and use the hashtag #seepastthestigma and direct people to www.seepastthestigma.org.
Recovery Month Community Art Project
Each year BHSB engages with the Baltimore recovery community through a citywide community art project. This year we facilitated the See Past the Stigma Postcard Project, where individuals created over 200 postcards that represent the journey of recovery. The art project was displayed at BHSB’s Recovery Month event where people shared their personal stories of recovery and overcoming stigma. It was a beautiful, moving event and BSHB is thankful to all of the behavioral health providers and individuals that helped make the event so meaningful.