“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
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So says Romeo as he considers Juliet—the woman he loves whose family is in constant conflict with his own—in Shakespeare’s play about star-crossed lovers. The young doomed lover is suggesting that it isn’t words or names that define a person, object, or situation.
Let’s face it: It’s a nice sentiment. But it isn’t always true.
When it comes to those struggling to overcome addiction, it’s important to remember that how we talk to and about people can have serious negative consequences.
Reframing the Conversation
Take, for example, a fairly common phrase: “Billy has a drug problem.”
That construction puts all of the blame on Billy while suggesting that the “drug problem” exists in isolation and is unrelated to anything else that might be going on in Billy’s life or environment. A small but important reframing might be, “Billy has problems caused by alcohol,” or, “Billy has drug-related problems.”
In both cases, the modified language acknowledges the true cause of the problem as well as suggesting that the issue exists as part of a wider context. The goal is to accurately describe Billy’s problem without implying that the problems are all his fault to begin with.
Similarly, experts suggest using the term “substance use disorder” rather than “substance abuse” as a descriptor of the challenges an individual may be facing. “Substance abuse” is certainly a common term, but it is inaccurate in a number of important ways. First, and perhaps most obviously, the “substance” isn’t being “abused.” Rather, the person with the substance use disorder is, in effect, being abused by the substance.
Secondly, the word “abuse” is problematic. “Abuse” is associated with a range of negative behaviors including child and domestic abuse, to name just two. Additionally, the term “substance abuse” is most commonly linked in the public imagination to illegal drugs rather than to alcohol or prescription medication—which may lead to a significant misunderstanding when someone finds themselves struggling with their use of these addictive substances.
A phrase like “serious problem with drugs or alcohol” is more accurate, and this adjustment in language could make it more likely that a person will seek help and that others will provide support rather than judgment.
No Shame in Your Game
These tweaks to the ways in which we talk and think about substance use disorder may seem too small to make any difference at all. But remember this: shame is a powerful emotion, and when our language use contributes to—rather than alleviates—a sense of shame, we are exacerbating the problem rather than helping to solve it.
In fact, it is essential that we all do our best to reduce the stigma and shame of addiction that can overwhelm someone in need of help—and prevent them from seeking it.
If you are the person on the road to recovery, it may seem like the shaming inherent in common phrases is unavoidable. But there are a number of steps you can take to lessen the impact of shaming in your life as your recovery progresses:
- Acknowledge your addiction
- Build a support system that includes professional care
- Be honest about your feelings and situation
- Advocate in your community
- Recognize that not everyone will understand the challenges you face
- Build a set of coping skills to fall back on when things are tough
- Work toward well-defined goals
Those suggestions apply to a number of areas in life, but it’s easy to see how several of them are directly related to communication and appropriate use of language. When you are building a personal support system, you should feel empowered to tell those around you that their words can be hurtful or helpful—and to help them understand how to consistently land on the side of helpfulness. Being honest should include straightforward conversations about appropriate ways to describe your substance abuse disorder and recovery journey. And when you take on the responsibility of advocating in your community, you should be eager to provide alternatives to the problematic language that has become all too prevalent.
Some People Just Won’t Watch Their Language
Of course, as is also noted above, not everyone will get it. Some people simply won’t understand. Others will choose to be stubborn and cling to ideas and terms that have long been part of their thinking and speaking. And some individuals—in fact, maybe all individuals, no matter how well meaning—will make mistakes, occasionally serving up a hurtful phrase inadvertently or without a full understanding of why it might be problematic.
It’s up to you to decide how to engage with such people—particularly those who simply refuse to hear you when you express concerns about the language they use. Stepping away from such negativity may well be one of the coping skills on your list.
By and large, however, your friends and family will want to help—and will be sensitive to ways in which words can be hurtful. Open and honest communication is the best way to get everyone on the same page.
Our Commitment is More Than Just Words
Everyone at Bel Aire Recovery Center in Kansas is ready to speak to you with compassion, care, and understanding for the challenges you or a loved one may be facing. We offer a full continuum of care for those suffering from substance use disorder. When you’re ready to talk about recovery, we’re ready to listen.