“Words are important. If you want to care for something, you call it a “flower”; if you want to kill something, you call it a “weed”. -Don Coyhis
“What do you mean you don’t drink…ever?” Ugh! That question used to make my stomach tighten up in knots. I knew it would inevitably be followed by, “Why not?” Although nobody owes anyone an explanation for their personal choices, I wanted to be honest because I was tired of constantly hiding pieces of myself. But, I would become uncomfortable and shifty. Every time, even when I knew it was coming I felt unprepared, uncertain of how to answer this question. But, I didn’t want to blurt out “because I am an alcoholic and drug addict!”
I was all too aware of the judgments and stigma from John Q. Public to follow after revealing that self-declaration. Sometimes I would try to laugh it off, tell people, “Oh, I am allergic…it makes me break out in handcuffs! Haha!” People in recovery would know that comment was only meant as a bit of self-disparaging humor. But, I failed to realize the message I was saying about myself when using that particular joke. John Q. Public hears, “I am someone who may be dangerous, probably has been arrested a few times, and I’m not trustworthy. Better watch your wallet!” This of course was not the image I was going for nor was it true. It most certainly didn’t validate the fact that addiction is a chronic brain disease and not a moral failing. Thankfully, I would be educated by others in recovery of another way to share my story. I was taught the language of recovery, a way to share my truth without shame or stigmatizing labels.
I had noticed some friends of mine being very open about their recovery and they appeared extremely comfortable and confident while doing so. This got me curious. I had read their blogs and seen comments they posted on social media. I particularly noticed the words they used when sharing their experiences and the absence of other more familiar terms. When I asked them about it, they told me they were a part of the new recovery movement, a social movement led by people in addiction recovery and their allies aimed at changing public and professional attitudes toward addiction recovery. Part of breaking the stigma associated with addiction is changing public perceptions which means changing the language we use when we talk about it.
When I became a recovery advocate, my belief was that I would be fighting against the stigma and misperceptions of others. What I came to realize was that I carried some of these stigmatizing beliefs and used words and phrases that disempowered myself and others who have substance use disorder. So for me, the first audience I needed to make an appeal for change was with me.
I made a decision to stop using phrases that diminish and demonize addiction and replace them with terms that speak to the true nature of addiction: this is a disease, not a moral failing. Using terms such as “clean” to describe abstinence insinuates that someone not yet in recovery is the opposite– “dirty”. This does not describe someone who is suffering from a disease who is worthy of recovery. Using the term “abuse” (drug/substance abuse, alcohol abuse) only reinforces an already held negative image. Think about it, what images and phrases come to mind when you hear the word abuse? Making these changes took a lot of practice. And, at first, it felt awkward because I spoke those terms for so long and others around me were still using them. But after time it has become a natural part of my speech when I am speaking about myself or recovery. Today, some even refer to me as “the language woman”. It’s a title I’m glad to have.
Finding my voice has been one of the greatest gifts I have received from joining the recovery movement. Now, when I am confronted with the question “Why don’t you drink?” I am empowered to say “I am a person in long-term recovery, and for me, that means that I have not used alcohol or other drugs since August 3rd of 2013. Recovery has brought stability to my life and to my family, allowed me to return to school to pursue my master’s degree in social work, and given me a voice as a recovery advocate which allows me to help others and strengthen my community.”
I have found great strength in being able to share this truth with people. It has been instrumental in helping me let go of the self-imposed shame I had been carrying around about my disease since I was a teenager. Shame that I feel kept calling me back out to drink and use in an attempt to prove that I was not “one of those people”. Now, I speak out as “one of those” people, a person in recovery. I speak out because recovery has enabled me to change my life for the better, and it is my obligation to pay it forward and make it possible for others to do the same.
“Words have immense power to wound or heal…The right words catalyze personal transformation and offer invitations to citizenship and community service. The wrong words stigmatize and dis-empower.” -William White