If you have an addiction, you’re an addict, right? No? OK, can I make a confession?
As a writer, it pains me to mess with the easygoing flow of a sentence in order to meet a need for a client. Let’s say they want me to include the phrase “feathers of a peacock in the shade of blue.” I’ll consider it, sure. But I won’t like it. “Blue peacock feathers” sounds better.
I feel the same way about the word “addict.” Or, I used to anyway.
That’s because it’s so much easier to say, “When talking with an addict . . .” than it is to say, “When talking with a person who has a substance use disorder . . .” So wordy!
Still, I’ve come around. And today we’re going to talk about why.
The short of it: our words matter. We have the very real power to affect change with what we say and how we choose to say it. I, for one, am officially on board. Ready to join me?
Words Matter: The Harm of Calling Someone an “Addict”
If you’re like me, you’ve probably used the word “addict” out of convenience. It’s quick and to the point—no need to spell things out. And you likely meant no ill will with your words.
Unfortunately, the word “addict” and others like it harms people hoping for addiction treatment. Don’t worry—we’ll get to the evidence behind this statement in a few minutes.
For now, let’s talk about a fictional guy named Matt. We’ll revisit him and his story throughout this piece. I’ll begin by describing Matt this way:
A drug addict named Matt lives in Chicago with
his long-time girlfriend and baby daughter.
Got an image in your head? Yeah, me too. How could we not? The media, novels and movies condition us to imagine exactly what Matt’s life looks like:
- Matt gets high most nights and sleeps late most mornings
- Matt either treats his girlfriend poorly or encourages her to engage in risky behavior
- He can’t hold down a job and doesn’t help with the bills (or the baby, for that matter)
- Matt knows drugs aren’t good for him and that they hurt his family, but he doesn’t care enough to change.
And how did we arrive at these conclusions? One little word: addict.
It’s no wonder, really. A University of Pennsylvania study found that when we hear someone labeled as an “addict” or “alcoholic,” we subconsciously view them in a negative light. We don’t mean to. It just happens.
Even babies—our most precious of creatures—have suffered the consequences of such a label. During the crack-fueled years of the 1980s and 1990s, babies born to addicted mothers were labeled as such and endured abuse and neglect because of their so-called malicious behavior!
So when a person hoping to overcome addiction hears these labels applied to themselves, they begin to internalize the word ”addict” or “alcoholic”. And then they add to it, believing themselves to also be “lazy, untrustworthy, [a] liar, [a] sinner, uncaring, unemployable” and more—whether these things bear any resemblance to the truth or not.
Can you imagine how you might feel in a moment like this? How our fictional friend, Matt, must feel? Maybe Matt started doing drugs at a young and impressionable age? Was he prescribed opioids after a routine surgery and couldn’t shake them? Perhaps he made admittedly bad choices in the past but would like to make good ones now and feels stuck?
When we throw a label like “addict” on a person like Matt, we’re basically beating him while he’s down. And as he takes on that label and adds other negative-self-talk to it, he begins to feel the palpable weight of shame.
And here’s where the discussion matters most:
Shame as a result of stigma serves as the biggest barrier to addiction treatment. Just one out of 10 people with an addiction find their way past the shame to reach out for professional help.
Our casual use of the word “addict” can harm in many ways, but no more significant than in the fact that it effectively delays and prevents treatment. When a person with addiction avoids treatment, they may even end up in jail instead of rehab—where they’re treated as a criminal instead of as a person in need of medical help.
A person in the SMART Recovery program described the harm we’re talking about this way: “When you call me an ‘addict,’ you make a judgment based on just one fact about my life. That makes me not want to trust you to help me when I’m sick.”
If not “addict,” then what?
Use Your Words For Good: The Power of Person-First Language
The answer to our problem is to replace labeling language with person-first language. Scratch what you know about our fictional friend, Matt, and let me introduce you to him again:
Matt is a father who lives in Chicago with his partner and has a substance use disorder.
What are we picturing now?
- Matt is a family man.
- He has a medical condition for which he needs help.
Beyond this, we have the opportunity to learn more about the finer details of his life. Perhaps he enjoys being a dad and is a committed partner? I wonder what he does for a living? It must be so difficult to live with a substance use disorder. How can I help?
Can you see how even a subtle shift in wording can cause a massive shift in treatment? Matt is no longer an addict. He’s a person. And people are deserving of our empathy, time and effort. Right?
And this isn’t merely “feel-goods” talking. The same University of Pennsylvania study that showed the harm of labeling also found the opposite to be true: referring to someone as a “person with an addiction” resulted in a more positive bias right from the start!
First-person language isn’t about being politically correct. It’s ultimately about saving lives. It starts by helping Matt see himself as a person with potential, and it furthers by helping family and friends, and medical professionals to see him that way, too.
Because, believe it or not, health care professionals of all types and levels tend to treat patients described as “substance abusers” more harshly than those described as “people with substance use disorder.”
Let’s break the semantics down for a minute, shall we?
Our fictional friend Matt visits his primary care doctor. During the appointment, he says, “I believe I’m addicted to opioids. I’ve tried to stop taking them, but I can’t. I need help.” The primary care doctor refers him out for specialized treatment, forwarding his notes as well.
The specialist sees the notes before he ever meets Matt. If he reads words like “addict,” he may judge Matt harshly before the first appointment. If he reads words like “person with an addiction,” he may be more accepting and ready to help. Same Matt, different words.
Other medical conditions get first-person respect. Its time addiction does too.
Change Begins With You and Me
The way we talk about all sorts of things has evolved over time and usually for the better. You can be part of the language change around addiction and encourage others to feel worthy of help in the following ways:
Examine your own internal bias.
Ask yourself, “What do I think about a person with addiction? Do I come to the discussion with preconceived ideas? Why do I do that? How can I know whether or not I’m right about my assumptions?”
Educate yourself on the disease of addiction.
Read memoirs by people who have lived through the pain and struggle of addiction. Learn all you can about what happens to the brain of a person addicted to drugs or alcohol (hint: the brain loses control). As you research, consider NPR’s statement that the “moralizing and punishment” of addiction has failed and why that might be true.
Enroll in family therapy.
Reach out to a counselor with experience in helping families heal from addiction. You’ll have the opportunity to talk about what you’ve been through—and to hear more about your loved one’s struggles as well. After all, understanding brings empathy. And it’s hard to stigmatize people with whom we empathize.
Execute what you’re learning.
Be mindful about how you talk about addiction, especially about the people who are struggling with it. You might take the advice of April Wilson Smith, now in recovery, who encourages us not to reveal a person’s history with drug use unless absolutely necessary.
And we’ll add that when it is necessary, be sure to use first-person language over labeling language every single time.
As Adi Jaffe, Ph.D., says in Psychology Today, “I believe in empowering people to make the positive changes in their life, rather than making them feel powerless and ashamed of their addiction.”
What more could we want for the Matts of the world?
Educating yourself on addiction is one of the most helpful and loving things you can do for someone living with an addiction.
If you want to learn more about addiction and how to get help for your loved one, call us at 844-768-0410.
By Stephanie Thomas