“Do the connotations associated with addiction lingo exacerbate the problems with which they’re affiliated?”

Date: 03/14/16 8:46 AM

What’s in a name? Well, a hell of a lot when it comes to talking about addiction and recovery. The words “addict,” “substance” and “abuser” are some of the most commonly “used” (whoops, there’s another) when discussing people with drug and/or alcohol problems. But do the connotations associated with addiction lingo exacerbate the problems with which they’re affiliated? A recent piece in the Boston Globe dissects the impact this language has on seeking treatment and societal stigmas.

The Danger in Name Calling

Several addiction experts were interviewed for the story. The ones advocating for change in the terminology argue that fear of these labels discourages people from getting help. Yep, I can’t argue with them there. Additionally, some even believe the words in question might even subconsciously affect the way medical professionals handle patients with drug and alcohol struggles.

The discussion included the potential damage of terms like “junkie” and “getting clean” which implies individuals are otherwise somehow dirty, even in the context of talking about urine in a drug test. This idea was illustrated by AfterParty Magazine hero and US drug czar Michael Botticelli, who pointed out, “We don’t say for a diabetic whose blood sugar spikes that they have ‘dirty blood sugar.’”

I had never even considered the negative connotations that come with saying someone is “clean.” If anything, I’ve always seen it as a huge compliment. Yes, it can imply that the person was formerly filthy but it can also mean they take care of their health and are doing everything in the realm of their control to not put toxic things in their body. I definitely feel a sense of cleanliness without a trace of booze in my system but also love the concept of “eating clean.” Maybe I’ve just lived in LA too long.

The word “addict” is especially triggering for advocates of changing the language. A doctor from the renowned Massachusetts psychiatric center McLean Fernside Hospital was interviewed and his reasoning for removing the term “addict” from the lexicon is simple but powerful. He says, “The person is much more than one illness.” I totally agree and have always disliked the blanket statement of calling someone an addict for that very reason. So now he or she has to walk around with this label the rest of their life as if it’s the only dimension of their existence? Not fair and not a fun way to think of oneself.

Leprous Labels

I can only speak to this issue as someone who struggled solely with alcohol and in that regard, I really relate. I hate the word “alcoholic” and don’t foresee an instance in the future when that will ever change. I also agree it’s the reason why so many people struggling don’t reach out for help, the current most common form of which is 12-step meetings. One of the reasons it was originally created as an anonymous system is because no one wants to be associated with the other A-word. When telling people about why I had to quit drinking, I will basically say everything but that. I don’t like the stigma associated with the word not just because of how I think it will make others perceive who I am as a person but also because it makes me question the label for myself (I didn’t end up in a ditch with a paper bag over a forty like most people picture when they hear “alcoholic” so I must not be an actual alcoholic…).

And my suspicions that people will judge if I say “I have alcoholism” aren’t off base. The Globe story cites a study revealing the average layman’s bias against the term “substance abuser.” They were apparently more likely to have empathy and to support the person getting medical assistance when the term “having substance abuse disorder” was used instead.

Turning Trash Talk Into Real Talk

Either we get new terms or remove the stigma associated with the current ones. Getting rid of the stigma might be easier. As the Post article mentions, so many media outlets, medical journals and even government agencies are littered with the current words (although, thankfully The National Institute of Junkies isn’t a thing). Unless we want to start making up new words since, “person suffering from substance abuse disorder” is kind of a mouthful, we’re better off just getting to a place of more openness and less judgment.

If we do have to create new terms, I have some ideas. “Bottlers” and “Altered Mind Enthusiasts” seem much more quaint, don’t you think?

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