Shame and Blame

Posted on December 16, 2015   |   
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The dreaded question for individuals living with COPD is, “Did you smoke?” So much is insinuated in three simple words, and so many in our community have to withstand the stigma associated with the disease. All too often, individuals living with COPD are afraid to reach out for help or seek treatment - let alone raise awareness - because they believe in the end they will be shamed and blamed for smoking.

While smoking is a primary cause of COPD, 25% of COPD patients have never smoked. Environmental, occupational, and genetic factors are also causes of respiratory disease. If you did or do smoke, however, you should know you are not alone. What is important now is not to look at the past with regret and shame, but to the future with strength and hope. No one has the right to take that away from you.

This reminds me of a piece of news from 2014. Online news site, Mail Online, reported that late actress Shirley Temple Black was, “…a secret smoker who died from lung disease.” After her passing, her family did not disclose COPD as the cause of death, perhaps out of fear that she might be stigmatized for smoking.

This is just one example of an individual who had to live in silence about a disease that ails 30 million Americans and is third leading cause of death in the U.S. We at the COPD Foundation hope everyone in our community will speak out and educate their friends and families about life with COPD. We believe the “shame and blame” culture will decline over time with greater awareness and education about the disease.

We are proud of all of our community members who have the courage to raise awareness despite the judgements of others. If you feel stigmatized due to COPD, just reach out to our COPD360social online community for support.

Have you been “shamed and blamed”? How did you deal with it? Please share in the comments section.


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  • I personally "shame and blame" myself more than others do to me, being my own worst enemy is how i got hooked to start with, shame and blame has left me with a serious inability to trust people, i have been smoke free for 14 years but the scars of 26 years of smoking will always be with me, I accept this and the fate that comes with it, but it hurts very deeply when I am clueless to whom I can trust and whom I cant, to me it is one of lifes most puzzling mysteries, I long for the days past when i trusted everything and everyone, but for me personally thoose days are gone forever, I share with America and the world the common loss.
    • I think a lot of people can relate, smokenomore. I'm glad you're able to open up to your friends on this site. We appreciate your insights.

  • My heart breaks a bit when the the first question someone asks me after I tell them about my father's COPD is, "well, did he smoke?" as if we deserved to lose one of the most important people in our lives because of this. The people asking the question may not, but I remember each of these encounters very vividly, because I found it so striking and hurtful.
    • I agree with you Kristen! I was embarrassed to wear o2 because of people thoughts and hurtful comments. I've had strangers ask me if I smoked.
    • I'm sorry that people do that, ElaineMB. I hope that they just do not understand how insensitive it is -- I hope too that by us becoming more vocal as a community, people will become more aware of the hurtful nature of some of their questions and comments.
  • I think many of us do way more damage to ourselves over the "shame and blame" thing than others ever intend. I've had COPD since 1985 and I smoked from the time I was 18 until I was 48, so 30 years. Frankly, I loved to smoke, and I'll tell anyone that. I also realized that it wasn't in my best interests to smoke, so I quit in 1992. I'm an active advocate for people with COPD and emphysema and people often ask, "Did you smoke?" I make the assumption that they are asking for information. If it's a medical person that's important information for her to know. If it's someone I'm talking to in an airport, I assume they're asking for information. I don't assume that they are blaming me. Because I don't assume they are blaming me, I never go there. If you blame yourself and assume that everyone else will blame you, then that's your perception. Perception is 100% your reality. Do yourself a favor and get rid of it.

    I always tell them I smoked for 30 years and loved it. Many will tell me they did, too, but they also quit because it wasn't in their best interest. I also take the opportunity to tell people that 25% of the people who develop COPD never smoked...not ever. And I talk about the fact that people who smoked for as long as I did and as much as did and who quit when I did never developed what's with that??? What's the difference between me and my mirror image who can still hike in the Rockies, while I really work to keep my treadmill going at sea level? Or why have I been able to maintain my lung function at the same level relative to people my age, height, weight and sex since 2000, while my counterpart, who's also done everything right, has watched her lung function take several nose dives, and worse than that, some of them have died? What's with that?

    By this time, they're getting several ideas: one is that this is a very complicated disease, about which some is known, but definitely not enough. They also see that there are lots of differences and that, because we have no other explanation for it, luck plays a huge part in this. I was one of the unlucky ones, in that I developed COPD, but lucky in that I've been able to manage and control it for so long. They're also getting the idea, if they ever had it, that blame is silly.

    My mother taught me a long time ago that we all do stupid stuff. Some of us do it for a very long time and some just do it once, but it's still stupid. Instead of spending time and effort feeling sorry for ourselves or blaming ourselves for something we can't change, do what we can do to make our situation as good as it can possibly be. In other words, get over yourself and start living life....believe me, it's possible with COPD and without the shame and blame!
    • You inspire me. I need to quit smoking NOW. Thanks for sharing
    • Very Inspirational. Thank you!
    • Very well spoken, Jean. I couldn't agree more with what you've said here. You are so right. ; )

  • I'm with Sam on this. I can do it all on my own, and do. No help needed. This is a tough one go me. For many different reasons and levels. Of course I rue the day I ever smoked. More than that was my ignorance regarding my symptoms in the preceding years up to 2015. I had rumblings in 2011, well let's say slapped in the face by SOB. After being assured it was Asthma, vocal cord issues and anxiety, my symptoms went away. Bad as they were, just gone one day. I quit for awhile but then after two years! Started again. Not much, but enough to I think, "push me over the edge". I was married and divorced within that time. A couple more times in 2014 I felt winded, but chalked it to what I had been told initially. Had I known, had my wife known, I think I'd be married and maybe, just maybe, I would not be here in this position. Instead hubris lead the charge, and I end up with COPD and divorced. I wasn't a heavy smoker by any means, liked being active, being outside was a big part of my life. I think in some ways my fitness hid my sob to a certain degree and the fact I had mild Asthma, just never put it together. When I look back it's obvious now.

    So there you have it, shame in that I smoked, and that I failed to heed the warnings, and it has really impacted me in ways I never knew it could. Shame in that recognition that how I felt was smoking related earlier on, would have slowed me down and I could have stopped to smell the roses, strengthened my marriage, or maybe it would have ripped it apart. I guess in the end, it sort of did. I held this identity, belief about myself, like I was somehow invincible. Could do whatever I wanted. That included some bad decisions in my marriage and of course the cigs. Like I could smoke some, do different activities because it all came so easy. Doubt I would have reached this point though had I stopped and said, something is really wrong here, and gotten to the bottom of it. Blame? Well I blame myself too. Frustrated by my actions, my lack of caring for myself I guess, when in my job I care for others, did not apply that to myself and it has cost me so much. I didn't protect my lifestyle I held so dear, and now must search for more life meaning, not too mention worry over the future. This has been an ongoing struggle; acceptance. Hope this makes sense! It is a good question and one I think many face. I hope that I can forgive myself at some point but I just don't know!!!
    • Patrick- thank you for your thoughtful response. The path to acceptance is indeed a process and you are on your way!
  • I feel shame and blame every day and am constantly reminded of how this is my fault by the very people who say they love me.
    • I'm sorry that you are experiencing that Carmen. Sometimes the people closest to us do not realize the impact of their words. You will find support and understanding here among the community. Stay strong.
  • Yes, I have severe emphysema and I am one of the many folks who NEVER smoked and was NOT exposed to lung irritants. I am often asked about my smoking history.

    I'm glad that COPDGene is looking for genetic causes of lung disease but sad they don't include races other than blacks and whites, since there are quite a few of us who are neither black now white.

    Shaming and blaming the patient does not improve treatment and us a cop-out.

    Even if folks smoked, they still deserve help in getting off addictive tobacco products and treatment for their lung disease and whatever other health conditions they have, same as those of us who have never been exposed to tobacco and other lung irritants. Blaming patients is never productive and self-blame us especially destructive.

    Now, let's all move forward with our providers toward the most effective personalized treatment plans for each of us to optimize our lungs and heslth!
  • The shame of smoking is what kept me from going the doctor and getting the medical treatment I needed. For the longest time, years and years, I knew something was very wrong but I was so guilty about my smoking and so ashamed of my inability to quit that I did nothing. Of course the day comes when you can no longer do nothing. By the time I was first diagnosed I was already very severe emphysema.

    I hated myself for smoking, shame and blame don't even being to describe it. Once I quit I felt so incredibly free, all those negative emotions were lifted off my shoulders. There was an incident at my pulmonologist office that did help me to shake off the bit of guilt I was still dragging around. She was trying to get my insurance to cover something for me and had stepped out to ask someone else for input. I overheard her say: she has quit smoking, she is exercising, she is doing everything she can to help herself, we have to do everything we can to help her.

    I cannot change my past but I can control how I move forward with my life and that is where I will spend my energy. I already wasted too much time, I will not waste one second more worrying about what others might be thinking. Yea I smoked, get over it, I did.

    • Thank you for including the story of your pulmonologist visit; that's a surprisingly helpful perspective.