When Addiction is the Topic
You know the old saying: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? It would be wonderful if each of us could simply ignore the negative things others might say to or about us. But our day-to-day experience would suggest that we are not, in fact, very good at disregarding the mean or inaccurate comments of other people—whether said to our face, behind our back, or online.
And sometimes we can even be hurt by words spoken by someone who has no intention of causing pain. Sometimes we all say hurtful things without understanding what makes them hurtful—or even that they are hurtful. This is certainly true when it comes to ways in which we talk to and about those struggling to overcome addiction.
Watching Our Language
We use many words associated with addiction without even thinking about it. But some of those words do more harm than good.
Take, for example, the word “abuse”—as in “drug abuse.” That’s a common and widely used construction. It is also problematic for a number of reasons. When people hear the phrase “drug abuse,” they tend to think about illegal drugs rather than prescription medications or alcohol.
Also, the word “abuse” is understandably linked to behaviors like child or domestic abuse. Both of these connotations of the word “abuse” can lead to an inaccurate understanding of what a person is going through.
To alleviate that problem, experts recommend using the term “substance use disorder” instead of “drug abuse” or “substance abuse.” Here’s an easy way to remember this distinction: “substance abuse” is inaccurate because the person with the substance use disorder isn’t assaulting or otherwise harming the substance. Instead, the substance and its use is harming the person.
In the same way, it is helpful to avoid a phrase like, “Jason has a drug problem.”
Jason may well have problems caused by drug use, or what might be called drug-related problems. But the construction “drug problem” does not accurately represent the full context of Jason’s life and situation. What are the contributing factors to Jason’s substance use? How best can they be addressed? How can we demonstrate support for treatment rather than judgment?
These are important questions to consider when we are tempted to shrug off the ways in which lazy language can contribute to—rather than help alleviate—the difficulties an individual is facing.
Shame is Lame
When the ways we talk about addiction contribute to a sense of shame, we are making a problem worse rather than better. The shame a person with a substance use disorder feels can prevent them from seeking the help they so desperately need.
And what if you are the person who is on a recovery journey? What can you do to reduce the shame you may be feeling—and to help ensure that others don’t feel that same kind of shame? Some steps you might take include:
- Acknowledging your substance abuse disorder
- Being honest and straightforward about your situation and your feelings about it
- Building a strong support system (including professional treatment and ongoing care)
- Becoming an advocate for better understanding and less shaming language
- Working toward specific goals
- Discovering the coping skills that you can rely on when things are difficult
- Realizing that some people will never understand your situation
Those steps are all about personal empowerment and ensuring that you are not contributing to your own feelings of shame. That empowerment will ideally include the confidence to let those around you know when their words are hurtful instead of helpful. Clear communication and gentle reminders when someone slips into old patterns of speaking can help ensure that you encounter less painful language while you work toward lasting sobriety. The people who are part of your strong support system—your family, your close friends, your sponsor—will want to know when the language they use becomes a stumbling block for you.
The Insensitive, the Bullies, and the Clueless
Some people simply won’t adopt new language for talking about substance use disorders. Maybe they think this kind of thing is politically correct malarkey. Maybe they think people who use drugs or alcohol are losers who deserve to be shamed. Maybe they just can’t quite figure out how to consistently make the change in the way they talk and think about things.
So what should you do when you encounter these people? In the end, it is up to you to determine the best course of action for yourself. You may find that there is a big difference in your ability to handle insensitive language from a relative who means well than, say, from a coworker who refuses your request to use different language when talking about your situation. Avoiding negativity and the people who promote it is a good coping skill, and one you should feel empowered to employ when necessary.
You Have Our Word – We Will Help with Care and Compassion
The Aviary Recovery Center staff is dedicated to an ethos of compassion, care, and understanding. As part of that commitment, we chose our words carefully. If you or a loved one needs to talk about a substance use disorder and chart a path to recovery, we are prepared—and eager—to listen.