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Commentary: Danger of stigma, shame in recovery and mental health

By Mali Woods-Drake

I was 14 the first time I ever sat in a therapist’s office. After finding my journals referencing suicidal thoughts combined with my past trip to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, my parents took me to see a psychologist. 

Ashamed at the thought of needing “help,” I spent the entire 60 minutes not saying a word.  At the end of the session, the therapist told my parents therapy would likely be unsuccessful if I was unwilling to talk. That was the end of my early entry into mental health treatment. 

I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college, when I hit bottom. I was fortunate that my mother was in town to celebrate her 50th birthday when I called her at 5:30 a.m., hungover, disoriented and considering suicide. 

Within 30 minutes, she was at my apartment where she figuratively and literally carried me out of the darkness to her car.  The same afternoon, I was in a therapist’s office. 

This time, I talked nonstop about my anxiety attacks, my drinking history, the wreckage that had become my life as a result of my seeking relief from depression at the bottom of a bottle. 

At 19 years old, I identified as an alcoholic.

Just days before I entered rehab for a month, my father shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer. 

“Focus on your recovery and I will do the same, we will both beat this,” he said.

I did what he asked, 26 days of inpatient, followed by young adult outpatient treatment three days a week, weekly 1:1 therapy, and a prescription for 20mg of Celexa a day. 

Unfortunately, while my recovery was well underway, my father’s cancer continued to rage and he passed away on Sept. 3, 2001. I was six months sober and devastated. 

Despite the loss of my father and my worsening depression, I managed to stay sober, a feat that I attest to incredible therapists, community and the grace of a God I was beginning to believe in. 

As a woman in long-term recovery and someone who has proudly shared my own story in hopes of ending the stigma of mental health illness, I have had the privilege of meeting thousands of people walking the same path.

I have also had the heartache that comes with losing countless loved ones to addiction and suicide, many who suffered in silence due to the shame and stigma our society places on mental health disorders. 

I recently read the following anonymous statements written about me on a website called “Encinitas Undercover.”

• “Her alcoholic pickled brain may not be getting boozed up lately, but she still acts and thinks like an alcoholic. If only we had one of her AA closed meetings share, or when she is speaker taped.”

• “Is an addict who admits to taking drugs daily really considered sober? I think not.”

I am well aware that as an outspoken activist in the community, I have opened my stance on issues up to critique.

However, what hurts most about these comments is not the personal attack, but rather that our neighbors, some newly in recovery, actively in addiction or suffering from mental health disorders may also read these remarks.

The danger these comments pose to someone on the brink of deciding between seeking help or continuing to suffer is unexplainable. The reference to infiltrating a closed 12-step meeting to record someone’s share is unconscionable.

At least one in five youth, aged 9 to 17, currently has a diagnosable mental health disorder. And yet individuals in our community outwardly criticize those who take prescribed medication. What does this say to our loved ones who may be suffering?

Some of the bravest people I’ve ever met were those who walked through the doors to a treatment center, into the rooms of recovery or a therapist office.

They were by society’s standards broken, but they were not without hope, mostly because someone else had shown them it was possible.

Addiction is a disease of isolation, recovery a solution of connection. When we risk pushing these brave recovery warriors into the darkness because of harmful attacks, we risk the lifeline between them and those wanting to find healing. We risk people’s lives.

I celebrated 21 years of sobriety on March 15, 2022. (To be clear, yes, one is still sober despite taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication as prescribed.)

I have no shame for my story, for the six years of active alcoholism or for the thousands of hours spent healing in therapy and recovery rooms. Rather, I have gratitude and pride.

My hope is that we can do better as neighbors toward those who are suffering from mental health issues or active addiction. Ideally, we can support them.

And at the very least, not shame them. 

Mali Woods-Drake is the founder of Encinitas4Equality.


Zory April 2, 2022 at 12:44 pm

As a licensed mental health clinician for 35 years, and a current representative from District 3 on the San Diego County Advisory Board, I appreciate Mali Woods- Drake’s vulnerability and integrity in sharing her struggles with alcohol and mental health in the past and current sobriety. All who read this have similar challenges in themselves, a family member, or friend such as; alcohol or drug addiction including the overuse or dependence on opioids for pain, eating disorders, a child who is suffering from cyberbullying or being cancelled by so-called friends, an eating disorder, gambling or porn addiction, and inability to tear themselves away from their devices, depression, and anxiety. If you bully, threaten, or intimidate others using their condition as a weapon against them to further your own agenda, then you are suffering from a personality disorder.

[email protected] April 1, 2022 at 10:27 pm

Thank you Mali for your bravery in telling your story. You are so right that the stigma against seeking mental health help is dangerous, and we all need to get a little more real and start talking about it. Cheers to your many years of sobriety and the emotionally healthy place you are in now. Encinitas is lucky to have you!

Ronette April 1, 2022 at 11:14 am

Thank you, Mali, for the strength and compassion held in your words. Congratulations on your 21 years of sobriety.

CivilitySister April 1, 2022 at 10:53 am

Thank you for this. Encinitas Undercover is a cesspool of frightened, hateful people who hide behind anonymity and attack ruthlessly. No facts matter to them. It’s not clear how big their readership is, but I, for one, stopped reading it long ago. Let the hate bubble shrink by telling the truth and respectfully sharing opinions and ideas through other media.

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