Changing the Way We Talk About Addiction

Changing the way we talk about addiction

Language And Thought

In 1946, George Orwell published an essay called Politics and the English Language. He wrote, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” How we write illustrates how we think. To honestly observe the words we use to show us how we form ideas.

The “foolish” thoughts we have are not limited to political matters. In the public forum, changing the way we talk about addiction should strive to eliminate slovenly language. Which, to Orwell’s point, encourages “foolish” thoughts. Much of the rhetoric about addiction contains either A) lazy, uninspired language or B) derogatory, weaponized language. Neither tactic presents a helpful, proactive solution.

Weak Words

Weak words are those used simply because they’ve been around for a long time. Nobody really knows why they’re here. Maybe they meant something at one point. But they’ve been used so many times that nobody really gives them a second thought. Most often, no one intends to insult or belittle a person with an SUD with words like these. For that reason, they may stigmatize addiction in a more sinister way than do weaponized words. Here’s just one example.

Much of the jargon around addiction uses divided language. Words that separate people into 2 groups. In and out, us and them. Any terms that maintain this divide must go. You’ll often hear contrasts between cleanliness and uncleanliness. “Clean” or “dirty” needles. “Clean” drug tests, or “peeing hot.” Even people with SUDs use this language with statements about how long they’ve been “clean.” Overuse of this language, without proper thought to what these terms really mean, further instantiates the division between those with SUDs and those without them. Remember, our words indicate how we think. So when people use these words, they tell the truth about what they think about addiction. People with SUDs are “dirty,” and people without SUDs are “clean.” Terms like these have been part and parcel of recovery jargon for a long time.

Weaponized Words

No one who struggles with a substance use disorder (SUD) feels like a winner. They don’t wake up in the morning overcome with joy. Many of them balk at the idea of waking up one more day. They don’t relish their lives. People with SUDs battle feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness on a regular basis. Loaded rhetoric intensifies these feelings. Let’s be honest: personal responsibility is an element of addiction. But it’s only one of many other elements. Weaponized words like “junkie” are, at best, unhelpful. At worst, they are destructive. If you’re angry at someone you love who struggles with SUD, that’s acceptable and understandable. It’s ok and normal to have those feelings. If you feel like lashing out at them and calling them names, that’s ok too. You deserve to be heard. But that doesn’t make it ok to do those things. By all means, express your hurt, your anger, or your grief to them. But before you speak, ask yourself a few things:

  1. Will what I’m about to say encourage someone to want to get better?
  2. If I struggled with a SUD, would I want someone to say this to me?
  3. What’s the purpose in what I’m about to say?

To properly express how you feel, phrase your sentences in a way that your loved one will receive. Try something like, “When ____________ happened, I felt ________,” or “when you chose to ________, I felt ________.” Own your feelings. Talk about them openly. But you must decide ahead of time to do so without insulting, labeling, and blaming.

Changing the Way We Talk About Addiction

The unexamined language we use about addiction reveals how we think about it. Our words also show us how we think about people with SUDs. When a culture marks those seeking treatment with dishonor or shame, the culture creates a stigma. Stigma needn’t be intentional to harm the self-worth of people with SUDs. Combating stigma requires a conscious effort to use new language about addiction. New words pave the way for new thoughts. One changed, sharpened mind helps shape the culture around it. That’s how stigmas spread, and that’s how they are stopped. Consider the above example about “clean” and “dirty.” Rather than “clean,” use “abstinent,” or “not actively using.” Where “dirty” might seem appropriate, say “actively using” instead.

Bear in mind that these words don’t exist to soften the reality of addiction. They provide neither excuses nor justifications. People with SUDs have wills. They make meaningful choices. Sometimes those meaningful choices lead them into patterns of suffering. Sometimes they need help to create new patterns. Therefore, language about addiction must be accurate. Language must put people with SUDs first before constructing words about them. Doing so preserves their identities and their wills. Person-first language deepens the meaning of addiction. It gives people with SUDs back the agency they need to change their lives. People with SUDs are just that – people. Giving them back their dignity – not to mention their ability to make meaningful decisions – empowers them. It allows them to assume responsibility for their actions without being crushed by the repercussions of those actions.

Weak words rob people with SUDs of agency and will. Implicitly, weak words treat people with SUDs as ill-fated people with no power. Weak language, while usually well-intended, defines a person by something they do. Or something they have done. Weaponized language punishes. It seeks retribution, leaving the person with SUD beneath its weight. Both types of language sabotage progress. Both for the person with SUD and for those treating them. For their loved ones as well.

People-first language restores hope. It gives those with SUDs hope because it treats them as though they have personhood. Changing language isn’t about easing feelings. It’s about changing meaning. For individuals first, then for the culture at large. Let’s start changing the way we talk about addiction today.

If you’d like more information on combating addiction stigma, contact Harmony Treatment and Wellness now at 772-247-6180.

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