Changing the Language of Addiction: Fighting Stigma

changing the language of addictionA client recently shared with me his experience of going to a faith-based recovery support group. He sincerely appreciated that he and the other attendees did not self-identify as addicts or alcoholics.


Instead, each person introduced themselves as a child of God.


How incredible, I thought. How healing it must have been, at a time when he is truly hurting, to identify with a label that affirms his value and worth instead of one that he experiences as shaming.


It was a stunning reminder of the power of language in our lives. There are few other arenas where the power of language is as strongly felt as it is with addiction. But why is this? Why is choosing our words carefully when we talk about drug and alcohol problems important? And how can we go about changing the language of addiction?


Language’s Power to Shape Reality and Perceptions

When you think about it, language is the foundation of how we experience reality. Language, by definition, refers to what we deem as being real in our lives, whether they’re objects, ideas, feelings, and so on.


Even though words have different, highly personalized meaning to each individual, the vast majority of the words we use everyday are sort of, well, “neutral.” That is, most words we use don’t carry emotional weight.


No one really bats an eye when we ask someone to pass the potatoes, or request our barista to leave room for cream, or the other millions of ways we use language everyday.


But many words do carry emotional weight. For an example, look no further than the four-letter word you used most recently. How did you use it? Chances are you weren’t using it just to refer to scat or sexual intercourse.


Because language has enormous power communicate emotion, it can shape and reinforces our attitudes and emotional lives in ways we often don’t think about. 

Because language has enormous power communicate emotion, it can shape and reinforces our attitudes and emotional lives in ways we often don’t think about. Language be tremendously hurtful because of the variegated meanings, social attitudes, and perceptions that words can hold.


For example, think about the difference between the terms “undocumented” and “illegal immigrant”? Regardless of your politics, these words refer to the same population but convey wildly different attitudes, realities, and perceptions.


The same is true when we’re talking about the language we use to refer to those struggling with a substance or a sexual behavior like watching pornography.


Language Has the Power to Create and Perpetuate Stigma

“Junkie.” “Dope fiend.” “Stoner.” “Druggie.” “Pothead.” “Crackhead.” Most of the time, when we use these words and others like it to refer to a person struggling with substance misuse, we don’t mean it kindly.


Even words like “alcoholic” and “addict” are often used by those who don’t identify as having a drug or alcohol problem to demean those who do. These words carry with them stigma in our culture when used by those who don’t identify as alcoholics or addicts (as those in 12-step communities do).


In that way, when we use these words, we often do it to separate themselves from them. They have an alcohol problem. We don’t. Because after all, we’re not alcoholics. 




This is exactly why these words have so much power and for so many only serve to intensify shame.


It’s also why these words can perpetuate the stigma of addiction. We make those with drug or alcohol problems an other, or those struggling with sexual behaviors an other, people unlike the rest of us.

With our language, we help make their struggles a mark of disgrace and shame.


Changing the Language of Addiction: Reducing Shame with Loving Speech

When we use consider changing the language of addiction, we need to be aware that what’s acceptable varies situationally. The chart at the right is one way to think about this.


Notice that the usual suspects like “addict” and “alcoholic” are generally okay in mutual aid meetings, i.e., 12-step communities.


Why? These folks have adopted this language for themselves and self-identify as addicts and alcoholics.


So while it’s okay for people in those communities to use this language, it can be shaming to use this language if you’re not in a 12-step recovery program.


For the public, we might simply keep in mind that there’s a lot of shame and discrimination with the usual parlance, as we’ve seen.


So what alternatives are there?

  • An “alcoholic” might alternatively be described as someone who struggles with alcohol or who has an alcohol problem.
  • A “sex addict” might be described as someone who struggles with out-of-control sexual behaviors.
  • A “porn addict” could be characterized as a person who has a problem with porn.


It’s a bit more of a mouthful at times, but do you see how humanizing that is? The individual is no longer a label; he or she is a person with a problem in need of support, understanding, affirmation, and care. 


Learning to use loving words is a process, a habit that we commit to forming. I don’t do this perfectly all the time, and neither will anyone else. But what we can do is keep trying. In doing so, our attitudes will be transforming by our conscious choices about the language we use.


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Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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