Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
-Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
Both of these statements convey the same sentiment, one just does so more elegantly and thoughtfully. The power of language never ceases to amaze. It can unite, excite, confuse and diffuse. Words can be deal breakers or deal makers. The very aspect that separates us from beasts can sometimes help us behave like beasts.
My favorite English professor compared “proper” English to your wearing your Sunday best. You use it when it is appropriate, like for job interviews, writing papers or public speaking, but not in every day casual conversations. When it comes to addiction, some “Sunday best” language is in order if the goal is to get people suffering with a substance use disorder to treatment.
When most people hear the word “addict”, they automatically pair it with negativity; hopeless, unhealthy, morally inept, loser. When we hear the word “cancer”, we may automatically think of terms like: survivor, sympathy, innocent victim. Why the disparity between two equally devastating diseases? Language.
Michael Botticelli, the Director for the Office of National Drug Policy, says, “Research shows that the language we use to describe this disease can either perpetuate or overcome the stereotypes, prejudice and lack of empathy that keep people from getting treatment they need”.
The drug czar’s office is developing a glossary of suggested language to help reduce the stigma of addiction. Here are a few of the recommendations:
“Dirty” with “actively using”
“alcoholic” with “substance use disorder”
“clean” with “abstinent”
This is not to say that in casual conversations or at support group meetings these terms aren’t acceptable. However, if we want to make a real cultural shift in how society views this disease, some simple steps can make great strides.