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[ Opinion ]

Language Of Addiction: Why It Hurts And How We Can Change It

By Tim Burnette

Make no mistake, language is power.

In some religious traditions, words even hold the power to create entire worlds. Perhaps it’s this generative capacity of words that novelists, poets, politicians, and even dictators somehow intrinsically understand. Yet while some harness their linguistic prowess for good, others, well…not so much.

In 1981, renown writer and theologian Henri Nouwen observed:

“Over the last few decades we have been inundated by a torrent of words. Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed, or angrily screamed; words spoke, recited, or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words in many sounds, many colors, or many forms; words to be heard, read, seen, or glanced at; words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump, or wiggle. Words, words, words! They form the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of our existence.” (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 45).

And that was just in 1981.

Fast forward 25 years, and words are now glowing in the palms of our hands, shoved into our ears, and even strapped to our faces in tiny cardboard casings. The words that construct our world today remind us of the inescapable reality that Nouwen so brilliantly noted: we are tied to our language, whether we like it or not.

For those in positions of power, this is incessantly good news. Utilizing the right words can (and often does) solidify their stature.

For others, however, that very same language crafts a narrative that systemically banishes them to the margins.

When language fails to evolve, it binds our world to the more harmful and often unquestioned ideologies of the past. And specifically within the lexicon of addiction and recovery, there are certain words that have become so engrained into the mainstream vernacular that they have continued to function without critical reflection.

Words like: Junkie. Abuser. Addict.

Now those are powerful, identity-shaping words. Think of the images they conjure.

If fighting addiction is in any way a battle against hopelessness, then more of us must necessarily become activists on behalf of those who are struggling with the substance use disorder. So, what can we do to change our words and our world?

Here are three practical steps we can take to speak with care and awareness on behalf of those struggling with substance use disorder.

Avoid Reductionistic Statements

Don’t reduce anyone down to an unhelpful misnomer. We must avoid “linguistic reductionism”; which is fancy-talk for statements that stigmatize others with a falsely definitive word about their core identity. To be sure, this is one of our greatest challenges as a species: to see “the humanity” behind a prevailing stigma or stereotype.

I’ve written before about how the language of stigma can impress a deadly mark upon one’s life and identity. But, unlike the stigmas throughout history, the “mark” of stigma today no longer manifests itself physically. It’s now become a linguistic “mark”, a word. And often the words spoken over us can either be the most empowering or most crippling forces in our lives.

In other words, it’s the difference between can and can’t, or hope and hopelessness.

The Boston Globe explains:

“The words provoking the most contention are ‘addict’ because the word labels a person as a health condition…and ‘abusers’ because, some specialists say these words affix blame on the sick and evoke some of the worst crimes, such as child abuse. Dr. Kevin P. Hill, an addiction psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, is especially disturbed by “addict” because it defines people by their illness. ‘This person is much more than one illness,’ he said.”

It is indeed much more than one illness, and calling someone a junkie, addict, or abuser simply cannot fully encompass their true identity. More importantly, it reduces them to something less than human, which directly translates into hopelessness.

Embrace the Evolution of Terms

We’ve all heard these platitudes before: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and, “Time heals all wounds.”

Let me just say that I have a complicated relationship with both of these statements. The reality is, I mostly find the opposite to be true: that words can hurt, and time sometimes fails to heal. I think what these old adages are trying to accomplish in their idealistic generalizations is that, in a sense, as time continues to stumble along, our collective human evolution can actually help rather than hurt.

Let me explain.

A French philosopher named Jacques Derrida popularized an idea that he called “deconstruction.” This theory purported that deconstruction is actually a state of language all the time, which means that our words are only temporary. It’s a concession that we are continually needing to reconsider our words for new contexts, new appropriations, for new centuries; and when necessary, to invent some new ones. He helped us realize that our linguistic constructs are just that, constructions.

Jacques Derrida

And, although many of us would like to think that the verbal edifices and empires we build are eternal, our constructs simply don’t last forever. Nothing in our world remains static. Everything changes, everything dies, composts, becomes something else. It’s just the way the world works, and words are no different.

It’s precisely our evolutionary ability to critically reflect on language that separates us from the rest of  the animal kingdom. It’s this continual development of our human consciousness that pushes us forward to create a more just, considerate, and attentive society.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once quoted Theodore Parker by saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Now, while there are a million reasons in the news not to believe that we are heading in that direction, the vision or “dream” remains compelling for a number of reasons. Mainly, a little thing called human rights. And this dream can only even begin to materialize if we learn to heed the call to let our evolving language inform our actions in that direction.

It is our nature to evolve, and we too must live up to that by reimagining, reinterpreting, and speaking anew about the subject of addiction and recovery in fresh ways that are appropriate for the 21st-century. In this realm in particular, we have simply learned too much about the nature of disease to allow old categories and terminologies to hold sway any longer; and this means speaking a new terms more accurately for those who are struggling with substance use disorder.

So, Whaddaya Say?

Some people refer to language as a game, thinking that the power of words is something that can be brandished for their own personal gain. Talk show host John Oliver’s recent piece on Donald Trump, for example, is a very recent example of how words can often be empty, especially when making substantive claims. 

However, I’m not interested in any political agenda, other than to show how easily we as a society can fail to be critical engagers of the messages we take in. This also happens on a very systemic level. The easiest thing to do is to simply believe what we hear, and furthermore, to regurgitate those same vacuous statements without any critical effort at all.

So, to help dismantle the reductionist language of the past, and the thoughtlessness that often accompanies the language of addiction and recovery, here are a few dos and don’ts (courtesy of The Huffington Post) we can all put into practice right away when we speak about the topic of addiction and recovery:

Time for a New Language

In our postmodern world, so much of our culture has already shifted at its social core, that our language often sputters to catch up to the prevailing linguistic norms. Although we live in a country that upholds the freedom of speech, for many, it is no longer acceptable to say certain things that degrade a particular sect of society. 

We have seen this playing out in various movements for racial equality, gender equality, sexual equality, and we hear these voices combat homogeny in many of its forms. That is, a vernacular that attempts to create a system where the underlying assumption is that everyone is the same.

If language is indeed power, as we mentioned earlier in this piece, then we must use it to empower those who have none. It matters how we converse both about the topic of addiction and those who are in recovery, because for them, this is an everyday reality. 

If we learn to avoid negative and reductionistic statements, get comfortable with the evolution of our world and its language and terminology, and innovate by utilizing more appropriate terms surrounding the various issues of addiction and recovery, we might be able to set the tone for a completely new kind of world.