Words matter, especially when talking about addiction

Anne Seaman
Guest columnist
Anne Seaman

What we say, and how we address people matters. It matters a lot.

During my son’s journey with opioid dependence, I have been exposed to a lot of terminology surrounding this brain disease. The vocabulary often used to describe this chronic condition includes words that could be used to describe… a dishtowel. Clean.  Dirty. Junk.

Single-word descriptions may be short and easy to use, but they invariably leave out nuance and context.

Never, have I been comfortable with the words, “addict” or “clean.” Even though these are the primary descriptors used for people living with substance use disorders, I have always found them demoralizing and humiliating. 

My unease stems from how monochromatic they are. It’s as if one word can sum up the totality of a person. I would never have introduced my son by saying, “Allow me to introduce Stuart, an addict.” 

Using single-word labeling for the complexities of chemical dependency is not limited to those in the general public. These labels are deep-seated within our institutions, families and even within treatment communities. They may be historical and well-intentioned labels, but they are not accurate.

These single-word labels are not only dehumanizing, they are outdated. Much of the drug rebab vocabulary has been with us since the 1930s.

Many drug-related support groups, while trying to be helpful, simply reinforce unhelpful labels. A person seeking community within these groups is encouraged to use a label when introducing themselves.  

“My name is (fill in the blank) and I am an addict,” is often the common refrain. This is repeated by each soul at every gathering. It’s as if nothing they can do will change that. They are first an “addict,” and anything after that is simply a footnote. It is defeatist language.

In supportive gatherings for other chronic diseases and conditions, do we expect participants to introduce themselves at every meeting as, “My name is Anne and I’m a diabetic?” No, diabetes is a disease, it is not a person. It goes without saying that all of those who attend a disease specific support group, are victims of that disease. 

So, what is the purpose?

If we want to help those who are chemically dependent achieve transformation and recovery, we need to change our language when speaking about them, and to them. Continually labeling people as “addicts,” even when their disease is not active, only reinforces negative self-worth. They are either “clean” or “dirty,” but they will always be “addicts.” They are stuck.

Not only is antiquated terminology inaccurate, it is stigmatizing. 

According to a review paper of scientific studies, conducted by medical researchers at Louisiana State University, published this year, stigmatizing language can dissuade patients from seeking help.

Our friends and family members are so much more than their disease. They are our children, parents and spouses. They are students, co-workers and professionals. They are people. People struggling with a persistent illness. They need our encouragement to see themselves in a healthier, different place; to no longer be labeled by their disease.   

What if we started to see those around us with a chemical dependence as the human beings that they are? What if we changed the entire lexicon? 

Perhaps we could start using the vocabulary that is the norm when speaking about all other chronic medical conditions: patient, active disease, remission, disease management, pharmacotherapy. 

See? It’s not that hard. 

If the goal is to keep people from dying. If the goal is to alleviate suffering.  We will need to change our language. 

Words matter.