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Showing Compassion Through Words: Why Language Affects the Stigma of Addiction

Published by stephaniefriend

Most of us grew up in the schoolyard playground facing childhood bullies that said hurtful words to us. For many of us, those words echo in our ears to this day. To cope with the hurt, were taught the rhyme, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words don’t mean a thing.” However, the reality is that the rhyme did little to soothe us. We found ourselves believing in what was said, and for many of us we began to doubt our value and worthiness later in life. A lot of us began to feel unwanted or unloved.

What we know now is that words do hurt. In fact, broken bones from sticks and stones often heal much faster than the wounds we suffer from the words of others. For some of us, we are still working to overcome the negative beliefs we have about ourselves as a result of those words.

When we’re talking about addiction and recovery, our words can mean the difference between overcoming and succeeding, or driving deeper into addiction. Much of the language that has developed around addiction is negative and can drive a wedge between an individual with a substance use disorder and her or his family. In this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into the negative words that surround addiction and how to use words to change the narrative.

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History of Addiction Language

Early history of addiction is nearly always labeled as a moral failure. Early religious texts condemned those who habitually used alcohol as sinners, criminals, and people of ill repute. Addiction was considered a choice, and thought to be a problem experienced only by the poor and people of color.

In the early 1900s, the first anti-drug laws were passed in the United States, criminalizing addiction as well as many medical treatments that were commonplace at the time. Through the 1960s and 1970s, addiction treatment methods included insulting and degrading addicts to “break” them before they could be rehabilitated. The 1970s brought the War on Drugs, when the focus on addiction switched from treatment to incarceration. This move would be the biggest influencing factor in the overcrowding of prisons that remains a problem to this day. Furthermore, those who are incarcerated for drug crimes have an 80% chance of offending again without proper treatment.

Our early beliefs were that people with substance use disorders were immoral criminals who needed to be broken in order to change. Society has insulted, degraded, and discarded those with substance and mental health struggles. Those beliefs carry into today, a time when we now know that these once-held beliefs are untrue. However, we often fail to realize that those beliefs and the associated language we use are actually causing harm to those we are trying to help.

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Words that Tear Down, or Words that Build Up?

Just like the words of the schoolyard bully, the negative words we say to someone with a substance use disorder can have long-term effects on the value an individual with a substance use disorder may place on themselves. In most cases, we see this drive that individual further into their addiction while damaging the relationship we have with them.

Words a simple as addict, alcoholic, drug abuser, or junkie are harmful labels that are still common in today’s vocabulary. These words reduce an individual to their disease, stigmatizing addiction as well as those who struggle with substance use disorders. We refer to their status as clean or dirty, rather than referring to a positive or negative substance use test.

The difference lies in whether we’re labeling the person as bad or the disease as bad. For those who have experienced addiction as well as long-term recovery, they’ll most certainly agree that addiction is bad. But they’ll also have come to the understanding that they were never bad. They realize that they once lived as though their life didn’t matter and that they had no sense of personal value or self-esteem. They’ll realize that in their addiction, they made poor choices, hurt their loved ones, and hurt themselves, but they were never bad people. Reinforcing those negative beliefs creates emotional pain and makes it so much more difficult to for an individual to envision a life without the numbing relief of the substance.

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It’s a Question of Value…What are They Truly Worth?

Let’s ask a simple question. Is a person less valuable when they’re struggling with addiction over when they’ve achieved long term recovery? Are they have greater value or worth if they’ve never struggled with a substance use disorder in the first place? Of course not, especially to those who love someone who has struggled with an addiction. So why are they treated like a scourge on society?

An individual isn’t less valuable simply because they struggle with a substance use disorder. It’s no different than a person with cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. In fact, substance use disorders are arguably more treatable than any of these diseases, with far better outcomes on post-treatment quality of life.

We owe it to those we love to change our perspectives on both addiction and those who struggle with it. We may be jaded or hurt by our loved ones with substance use disorders, but we can only help them if we take a step back and attempt to understand what life has been like in their shoes. Only then can we begin to have compassion for the emotional pain they’ve experienced and become a positive influence on their recovery.

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Focusing on the Ultimate Goal

Decades of scientific research on addiction has shown one truth without question. It is a truth that has led to millions of individuals finding successful long-term recovery from substance use disorders. The reality is that a substance use disorder (or addiction) is a disease and not a moral failure. A person with a substance use disorder may make poor choices as a result of their disease, but the disease itself was never a choice.

This discovery is in stark contrast to the archaic belief that addiction is a moral failure, an individual preference, or a lack of willpower. If we are to positively influence our loved ones with substance use disorders, we need to change the narrative surrounding addiction. Our loved ones aren’t bad people becoming good, they’re people with legitimate disorders who are finding treatment and healing.

Whether healthy or struggling with a substance use disorder, every individual needs to be respected. They need to know that they matter, their needs are important, and that their existence has an impact on this world. We all have character defects, and we all need a little grace every now and then. Treating our loved ones with dignity and respect in their addiction will help them trust us and ease their transition into recovery.

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Changing the Narrative

Addiction has always been, and will continue to be a disorder that many individuals with struggle with at some point in their lives. The latest statistics show that about 23 million Americans over the age of 12 currently struggle with an addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. That’s about 1 out of every 10 individuals in this population segment.

What’s worse is that only about 1 out of 10 who struggle will receive adequate treatment for a substance use disorder. Many will shun help because of stigmas, fear of consequences, financial constraints, lack of adequate health insurance coverage, or other barriers to treatment.

Financial constraints aside, Gateway Recovery Center is committed to ending the stigma of addiction. It is of utmost importance to us that every individual we work with is treated with the highest level of compassion and respect. We’re working to change the narrative in our society by treating addiction as a disease, not a moral failure. Our goal is to meet our guests right where they’re at, and provide a safe place for them to begin the healing process from their fears and emotional traumas.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, Gateway Recovery Center is here to help, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We know the first step can be hard, we’re here to guide you. Please don’t wait any longer, give us a call right now.

(833) DETOX-80

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