What Kind of Language Should We Use Around Drug Use?

What Kind of Language Should We Use Around Drug Use?
Addiction September 18, 2021
Author: Ilana Jael

When talking about addiction, there are some obviously stigmatizing slurs that I’ve been careful to stay away from in my writing. But the more I learn about the complex and charged language surrounding substance use disorders, the more I find that some of the terms that many people would assume were neutral descriptors have come under fire for perpetuating negative stereotypes, like even the word “addict” itself. 

This is because some people believe that describing someone as an “addict” versus a person with addiction, person struggling with addiction, or person struggling with substance use disorder falsely identifies the person with their disorder, and, in so doing, denies them dignity and humanity. It also may imply a permanence to their condition that the many stories of people who have fully recovered from a substance use disorder prove patently false. 

This “person-first” approach has also been recommended when referring to other diseases and disabilities that can come with stigma— e. g. “person with schizophrenia” or “person with obesity.” Since illicit drug dependence is the most stigmatized condition in the world (with alcohol use disorder coming in not far behind at fourth), referring to those who suffer from it with language that does not invite judgement might be particularly important.

Another addiction-related term that has come under criticism is referring to substance or drug “abuse” as opposed to “risky,” “harmful,” “inappropriate,” “unhealthy,” “hazardous,” or “problem” drug use. In the case of the abuse of a prescription medication, “misuse” might also be a helpful term. 

This is because the word “abuse” carries a connotation of violence and harm to others, as in the example of “child abuse” or “animal abuse.” But unlike someone who “abuses” another person, someone who abuses drugs is not necessarily harming anyone but themselves with their behavior, and almost certainly not in the direct, intentional way that the term “abuse” seems to suggest.

Even some terms surrounding substance use that might at first seem to have more positive connotations actually come with some potentially problematic implications as well. For instance, referring to a drug test that comes back negative or a person who has recovered from substance use disorder as “clean” creates the implication that a positive test or a person who is still using substances is “dirty.”

Likewise, while referring to a drug addiction as a mere “habit” might at first seem like a harmless euphemism, some experts believe that it dangerously minimizes the seriousness of the situation. Thinking about substance use disorder as a simple “habit” that could be easily overcome by willpower alone shifts the blame onto those with the disorder for not being able to just “choose” to stop. 

In reality, substance use disorder is a complex bio-psycho-social condition, and those who suffer from it often require medical or behavioral treatment to gain the skills they will need to succeed in recovery.

Then, there’s the matter of medication-assisted recovery, which is itself a matter of some controversy when it comes to drug addiction and treatment. While it is sometimes referred to as “replacement,” or “substitution” therapy, others believe that this terminology wrongly suggests that the person being treated has merely replaced one addiction with another rather than succeeded in stopping their compulsive, life-threatening use of a far more dangerous substance.

Even the term “medication-assisted treatment” as opposed to medication-assisted-recovery is ill-advised to some because it implies that the medication should have only a supplemental or temporary role as opposed to being a long-term element of a full recovery from a substance use disorder, the way other psychiatric medications are understood.

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by all this twisty terminology, we don’t blame you—it’s certainly a lot to keep straight! Since the language is still evolving and not all of these suggested alterations have made it into the mainstream, it’s not as if you need to feel bad for using any of these terms, especially since not all experts or people who suffer from addiction are in favor of them. 

Some instead suggest, for instance, that someone shouldn’t need to be referred to as a person first to be thought of that way, and that the unwieldiness of person-first language ultimately serves to emphasize rather than eliminate the dehumanization in many people’s conceptions of those suffering from addiction. 

Nor do you need to stop identifying yourself as an addict or alcoholic if that designation has been useful to you in your path towards recovery— for example, because identifying yourself that way is an essential element to some twelve-step programs. 

But it may be worth having a conversation with other people with addiction or in recovery in your life about how they’d like to be referred to, and to make an effort to speak in a way that makes them most comfortable. Be it as it may that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, the language that you use can make a serious impact on how other people feel.

Navigating the complexities of the language that surrounds addiction is the least of the challenges you might face in recovery. But if you have found yourself struggling, a sober living home like the one offered by Reco Institute can help you regain your footing in sobriety in a safe, supportive environment. To learn more, contact us today. 

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