by Eliza Player
This stigma of addiction keeps the drug user in the ancient realm of his moral failing, which is also exasperated by unchanging and archaic treatment models. Our treatment model is dominated by the 12-step model, which is a spiritual solution, relying on the connection with a Higher Power to find a treatment for addiction. To claim that addiction is a spiritual problem that requires a spiritual solution, simply keeps addiction in the realm of moral failing. Unfortunately, you hear this phrase often within 12-step groups. If you had cancer, would you skirt all medical treatments, and simply rely on the power of prayer and your pastor’s blessing to cure you? Of course not! But, yet our addiction treatment model is dominated by a spiritual solution, and too often evidence-based treatments are regarded as lesser options. We all acknowledge today that addiction is a disease, but the old image of drug use being a moral problem remains embedded within society’s belief, keeping many from seeking a medical solution to this disease. If you have diabetes, a doctor would not tell you to rely on your Higher Power to keep you alive, but he would look to evidence-based, scientifically proven, medical solutions. Stigma is the only reason that addiction is not regarded the same as other diseases.
Even more baffling, is that this stigma is often perpetuated within the recovery community. Those of us, whom 40% of New Jerseyans would be guarded in meeting, are often the ones that keep the stigma thriving. Often times, without even realizing it!
How do we perpetuate the stigma in our recovery? We often do so with the language we use, the slogans we tout, and the images that we reinforce. Too often, people in recovery forget where they come from, and look down upon those still using. I cannot count how many times I have heard someone in recovery discount an old friend or colleague that is still using, and their stigmatizing language just seems to come naturally.
Too often, I see people in recovery implying that they are somehow better than the person still using. They demonize drug use just like the sensationalist news reports, the police enforcing the War on Drugs, and the lawmakers that repeatedly deny evidence-based treatments as part of court approved treatment programs. When we see these stories of Krokodil and turn our nose up in disgust, we are only reinforcing the demonic image of addiction. When we share stories of addicted mothers losing their children, or a town that meth has ruined, or someone who is caught making meth in Wal-Mart, we are merely strengthening the stereotypical image of addiction.
We need to begin to realize that the language we use can make a huge impact on the way that others perceive addiction and recovery. Language matters. The terminology we use to define addiction, and even ourselves is incredibly stigmatizing. While we may understand what is meant by it, those not touched by addiction will often conjure up the stereotypical image of addiction with the mention of mere words.
Take the word ‘junkie,’ for instance. This word often conjures up this negative image of drug use. Look at the root of the word alone- junk. It suggests that drugs are ‘junk’ or ‘trash,’ and that the user is just that, as well. I know that many of us may have used this term affectionately in our using days, almost with a badge of pride, but the outside world the world merely creates the image of discarded garbage.
Let us consider the word ‘addict.’ This word also conjures up the stereotypical image of a drug user, and it also serves to box us into that sole identity. It is often the use of the word ‘addict’ in recovery circles that keeps us confined to that identity. Every share at an NA meeting begins with, “Hello, my name is ----, and I am an addict.” We become trapped within that negative image when we define ourselves that way, and it is incredibly limiting. We are so much more than that! By defining ourselves as such, we are omitting the most important things about us-the things that we are good at, our passions, and our successes. I prefer to look at it a little more pragmatically. I would like to see every share at an NA meeting begin more like this, “Hello, I am Eliza, and while I was once addicted to drugs, now I am a mother, a wife, a college graduate, and a successful writer.” We could eliminate the ‘addict’ label all together if we used words like ‘drug user’ or ‘former drug user.’
Now consider the words ‘clean’ and ‘dirty.’ The term clean is also used frequently in 12-step circles, but even in other realms of treatment, to denote a person who is no longer using drugs. But, these terms carry a connotation that suggests that one using drugs is somehow unclean, ‘dirty,’ and implies that drug use is morally wrong, making a drug user marginalized. Instead of using the word clean, we could eliminate the stigma associated with it be using words like ‘drug free’, ‘opiate-free,’ or even ‘in recovery.’ In reference to urine screens, they should be ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, the medical terms, rather than using the stigmatizing words like ‘clean’ and ‘dirty.’
There are magnitudes of recovery slogans that also perpetuate the stigma of addiction. Most of these are tossed around regularly within the 12-step community, without even thinking of how they reinforce that stereotypical image of addiction. “Once a junkie, always a junkie,’ bothers me more than any other slogan I have ever heard! While I understand that many people in the rooms consider this slogan to serve as a warning that their addiction is always lurking (which I also might disagree with), it actually is viewed quite differently from people who hear it outside the rooms. This slogan paints the picture of a drug user, who even in recovery cannot surpass that stereotypical image. This slogan scares potential employers from hiring someone in recovery, especially when others in recovery throw this phrase around. It suggests that once one has been a ‘junkie’, they will always be the manipulative, thieving, liars that many perceive a drug user to be. It reinforces the idea that drug users fit into a lower class than the rest of society, and that they cannot ever escape that. Another similar slogan I have heard in NA meetings is “How can you tell a junkie is lying? His lips are moving.” This one is also frustrating, as it gives the impression that all drug users lie each time they speak. It just reinforces the image that drug use is bad and immoral, and hence it should be demonized. When this image is reinforced, it can become hard to overcome that stereotype, even with years of always being completely honest on all fronts.
In a world that is already laden with judgment against drug users and even former drug users, it is our responsibility in recovery to try and break down the stigma of addiction. We need to be vigilant of the language we use, and the images we share. We need to tell our stories to help show the rest of the world that the face of addiction looks like mine, and yours, and even like the wholesome kid next door. We also need to set an example for others by showing compassion and not judgment to those still suffering. We need to bond together, rather than lining up in separate factions with warring ideas, because we are all fighting this stigma on the same battleground. We need to show the human face of addiction, so that drug users and former drug users are not marginalized, in hopes that we can lessen the stigma, create more access to treatment, and to end the negative perception of addiction that only fuels the War on Drugs and harsh drug policy. By accepting that drug use is a reality, and addiction is a health issue, without passing judgment on those using, or even others in their recovery, maybe we can begin to break down the stigma of drug use and addiction, and hopefully the stereotypical image of addiction will also dissipate.
image courtesy of shatterthestigma.com