What You Say Matters: How Society Talks About Addiction

Words matter. The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements are rooted, at least in part, in language and behaviors that segments of society no longer find acceptable. These causes have reminded us that words hurt, often perpetuating certain negative and naïve stereotypes that do not reflect reality.

The Stigma Surrounding Substance Abuse

There has always been a stigma surrounding alcoholism and addiction. History tells us that alcoholics were once regularly deposited into large asylums to wither away without known remedies or the hope of recovery. For one of the world’s most prominent maladies, there were few institutional options. The study and treatment of the disease did not begin in earnest until the early 20th century. During this time, some states even considered sterilizing those with addiction and other mental disorders because they were considered degenerates.

We have come a long way since then. We now see addiction as a disease rather than a depraved weakness or moral failing. The very public admissions of prominent individuals such as Betty Ford, Dick Van Dyke, and the many who followed showed us that no one is immune from the grips of this illness. Now, more than ever, people are opening up about their battle with drugs and alcohol. The reality is that addiction is so widespread today that it is normal for most people to know someone who struggles or has struggled with this disease.

How Language Perpetuates Stigma

A study by the Recovery Research Institute asked participants how they viewed someone who actively uses drugs or alcohol. To one group of participants, users were referred to as “substance abusers”; to the other group, users were described as “having a substance use disorder.” The study concluded that “substance abusers” were less likely to benefit from treatment and more likely to benefit from punishment. They were also perceived as being more socially threatening and more likely to be responsible for their substance-related difficulties. In this study, and often in society, how we talk about addiction deeply impacts how we treat those who suffer from it. Fortunately, there is a movement already in place in the recovery community to eliminate derogatory or outdated language associated with substance use disorder.

Words to Avoid When Talking About Addiction

Relapse

To some, this word may seem benign, but the term “relapse” implies an intrinsic moral failure or lack of personal constitution. The word perpetuates the negative stigma long associated with alcoholism and addiction. When someone experiences a return of cancer, do we call it a relapse? What about asthma, arthritis, or diabetes? Do we ever associate the word relapse with any of these chronic illnesses? “Recurrence” is a more appropriate term to describe an incident when an individual in recovery – for whatever the reasons – returns to the perceived comfort of their substance of choice. Therefore, we should be using the same term that regularly describes a return of other chronic and potentially deadly diseases when referring to a substance use disorder.

To some, this may seem semantic, but it is more. Substance use disorder is a “cunning, baffling, and powerful disease.” It is not a problem of willpower. It is not about just saying no. It is a consequence of a commanding and impactful illness.

Addict/Alcoholic

More and more of us no longer call ourselves “addicts” or “alcoholics”. Instead, we refer to ourselves as people in “long-term recovery”. Rather than having a deficiency, being in “long-term recovery” implies people who have overcome staggering difficulties and are continuing on a path to improving their lives.

Junky/Junkie, Habit, Dirty, and Clean

Remember the “War on Drugs”? Not only were these efforts ineffective in preventing addiction, but the derogatory language in this campaign was thought to be a tool to dissuade people from misusing substances. In the 1980s, the general message was that “Junkies with a habit use dirty needles and are just trying to get clean.” A more compassionate and appropriate way to say this would be, “Someone with a substance use disorder who was once in active addiction is now in treatment with the hope of engaging in long-term recovery.”

Individuals in recovery are becoming more comfortable with telling their stories in public. They may do this to release a personal burden or to help others who may be struggling with a substance use disorder. Advocates in the recovery community are constantly working to break down the stigmas associated with addiction. Regardless of what we say, the language we use in telling our stories is crucial. Yes, we have come a long way in diluting the stigmas, particularly in recent years, but to continue this movement’s momentum, we need to use words that humanize others, are free of judgment, and properly describe our malady as a chronic disease, not a personal weakness.