Opiate addiction doesn’t just hurt individuals. It hurts friends, families, and communities. The way people speak to those struggling with addiction (including how people with opiate addiction disorder speak about themselves) can make a difference in how successful efforts at recovery from addiction can be and how society views people afflicted with opiate addiction.
How These Words Hurt
The statements and questions outlined below can provoke shame, guilt, anger, and despair in someone who has already turned to opiates to numb themselves so they wouldn’t have to feel those uncomfortable emotions. Instead of being inspiring, validating, or supportive, the following language is subtle in how it demoralizes people in active addiction and may even push them away from the recovery options available to them. As the United States begins to transition from being more judgmental to being more understanding of nearly all addictive diseases, the language of the past is sly enough to hide how powerful words can be–the hidden messages that lie beneath the semantics.
“You love drugs more than me.”
This can be a heartbreaking thing to hear. In all actuality, people with opioid addiction do not love drugs more than a particular person; they are simply distressed and in need of help. But when someone makes a statement like this, it denotes that the person experiencing opiate addiction is making some kind of conscious, clear-headed decision to choose addiction over a loved one. This statement implies opiate addiction is a choice.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Most people say this to mean that the actively addicted person is intentionally putting themselves and the people around them in unpleasant situations. Often by engaging in various problematic behaviors (stealing, lying, etc.) in an attempt to get access to opiates. “What’s wrong with you?” supports the notion that people with opiate addiction disorders are inherently flawed and not suffering from a medical condition.
“I’ll make you go to treatment!”
Authorities do sometimes have influence over where someone goes, but this never means they control their thoughts and feelings while they’re there. People who say they will force or surprise someone into entering a treatment facility often have a co-dependent relationship with that person. They take responsibility for a disease that no one has full control over. Instead of attempting to force someone to stop using, show love for them, while simultaneously maintaining respect for oneself (even when that means distancing themselves from the person with the addictive disorder) has more power than strong-arming someone into a healthier lifestyle.
“If you just had _____ you won’t use so much.”
This statement shows miseducation about addiction. Addiction treatment is virtually always the primary need. People who suffer from addiction earn million-dollar salaries and are unemployed; are divorced, dating, married, and single; live with their parents and on their own. Getting a job, moving to a new city, or falling in love will not make opioid addiction magically disappear. Losing jobs, property, and relationships are symptoms of addiction, not the other way around. Addiction is a problem in itself and needs to be treated before (or, at a minimum, at the same time as) long-term treatment for other issues begins.
“Why don’t you just quit?”
When people say this, it often comes across with an unstated, but implied, “you idiot.” People who say this to people battling addiction don’t have an understanding of the disease. They may be critical of someone in active addiction because they honestly believe that the person could stop using without issue if they “really wanted to.” People living with an opiate addiction have to deal with stigma on a daily basis. By avoiding this kind of language, professionals, people in recovery, and the loved ones of people suffering from opioid addiction can help stifle that stigma. The less embarrassment people feel about getting the help they deserve, the more likely they are to accept it and start leading healthy, happy lives.