Language Matters: The word “Addict” and not letting your struggle become your identity.

Language matters. This isn’t breaking news; we’ve been saying it for years. And when it comes to language surrounding health, the phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is far from true. Particularly when it comes to language surrounding addiction, words can prevent people from accessing treatment.

Now I know someone is going to want to argue that, because words preventing people from getting treatment seems ridiculous. And I agree, it is ridiculous! But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And in defense of that statement, I want to point out hundreds of international experts spent more than ten years defining and classifying mental health disorders, including terms regarding addiction, or rather “substance use disorder”, specifically with the goal of improving diagnosis, treatment, and research. If language didn’t impact health, why would so many experts spend so much time doing that?

That said, I’m going to spend some time in a series of blog posts, explaining the language we need to stop using, staring with the word, “addict”. The word “addict” has become highly stigmatized. It’s synonymous with other words such as “junkie”, and “druggie”. It is often pre-faced with “loser”, “bum-a$$”, or “low-life”. It includes the connotations of “dirty”, “thief”, “scumbag” and “worthless”. It is all so overwhelmingly negative.

Imagine being called that each day. Imagine being treated like that, like you mean nothing. Imagine people who don’t even know you acting as if you were better off dead. And imagine, your friends or family feeling that way about you. I think, I’d start to believe it. I think it would be hard for anyone not to. And I think living like that would further my struggle, not help it.

The weight of those words, make people feel unworthy of love, life, health, and happiness. So how are they supposed to get any better? I’m going to go as far as to say this, calling someone an “addict”, is bullying, its emotional abuse. It needs to end.

Now before anyone goes jumping on their high horse to tell me the first step in the road to recovery involves admitting there is a problem and acknowledging they are an “addict”, hold off. (Because not everyone uses a step-like program to sobriety and those that do may not share the same interpretation of each step. And honestly this isn’t in favor or against the step program. So let’s not make it that way. I am all for whatever step and interpretation gets a person to sobriety. If calling themselves an “addict” does the job, they can! Infact, when people take ownership of a word they have the ability to change the stigma associated with it and for that matter, I think they should. Further, I think they should be able to say it with pride, not shame. But everyone else needs to stop).

Let’s focus on what we really need to get to. In my professional life I’ve had the opportunity spending years working with people who have special needs and mental health disorders. I spent much of my earlier career working with children who have autism. Language development appeared regularly on our quarterly mandatory organization agendas. “People-first language” was adopted as the standard of care and it is high-past time we apply that logic to substance use disorder.

It is typically with mental health diagnosis’s (and a handful of physical ones such as diabetic) that we label a person by their health. (ie. Autistic, Schizophrenic, Bipolar, psychotic, alcoholic). These are all examples of language in which the fact that the individual is a living, breathing, human being with worth and feelings, is secondary to their health. It is not people-first language, and it is not supportive, and it can feel dehumanizing.

What I learned from working with people who get labeled by their diagnosis, is that for starters, they don’t appreciate it. They don’t see it as their identity. It is a part of them, but it is not who they are, and neither are the connotations that accompany them.
In so many online support groups for friends and family of those with substance use disorder I see the initials “AD” and “AS” appear. It stands for “addicted daughter” and “addicted son”. And while I believe those who use the term mean well, they have simultaneously just put their loved ones addiction, ahead of the fact that they are their child. Introductions that include a diagnosis are unnecessary. It is not your “addicted child”, it is not “your child who has an addiction”, it is simply “your child”.

So I ask you this, consider what side of the mental health you are on. Consider the statistics associated with mental health and substance use disorder, do you want to see those change?  Do you want to see an improvement in the way mental health, substance use disorder, and the opioid crisis are treated? Do you want to see more accessibility to treatment?  Do you want your loved one to get better?


If so, start by considering your language.


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