The words we use can change the tone or intent of what we’re trying to say, and according to a new article in the journal Substance Abuse, certain words may even undermine the recovery efforts of those attempting to overcome addiction.
Consider the word “junkie.” “Junk” is a word that defines things we don’t want, so someone who is a “junkie” doesn’t sound like someone worth keeping around. Conversely, to get “clean” implies purity, fresh starts, and positivity – but to do anything that tarnishes that must be “bad” or “dirty.”
It’s a problem that is relatively unique to addiction. No cancer patient is defined as a “junkie,” and diabetic patients who eat foods that put their health at risk are not termed “relapsers” or judged harshly. Both diabetes and cancer are chronic illnesses that require ongoing treatment and monitoring just like addiction, but patients who are detoxing and in treatment for addiction must deal with language that is often more moralistic than helpful, according to New York Magazine.
Positive vs. Negative Language
Lauren M. Broyles is a health services researcher at the VA Pittsburgh Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion. She told New York Magazine: “Even if we don’t think we’re being overtly stigmatizing … a lot of that moralistic language creeps in – like ‘clean’ and ‘dirty.’ Changing the language helps to change the conversation, so we are now talking about a disease that has multiple ideologies – and multiple treatments.”
For one patient, it was a simple change in language that helped him to shift his view of his recovery from hopeless to hopeful, says Broyles. This patient was drug tested regularly and often tested positive for certain drugs. He referred to these tests as “dirty urines,” an undeniably negative term. “Urine” is human waste and has an inherent negative context, and of course, the word “dirty” doesn’t improve the connotation.
Says Broyles: “I told him [that] I like to think of the urine toxicity screen as a tool that we use to help you get better – it’s not an indicator of ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ or ‘contaminated.’ You aren’t contaminated – you have an illness that needs to be monitored.”
For this patient, this simple shift helped him to re-engage with his recovery and feel more positively about his progress and prospects.
Broyles suggests that changing up the language can have a similarly positive impact on patients everywhere. Instead of using “heroin addict,” she suggests using “person who uses heroin,” for example. Some current phrases – like “clean and sober” – may be empowering to people and may not need to be dropped; it just depends on the message being sent, she says.
What do you think? What language changes do you think could better empower patients in recovery? Leave us a comment and tell us which words you think should be dropped and which ones should be added.