Why It's Wrong to Call Drug Users "Addicts"

“Addict’” is one of those words that so many of us use, largely without pausing to wonder if we should. We just take for granted that it’s totally okay to describe a human being with one word, “addict”—a word with overwhelmingly negative connotations to many people.

We don’t really do that for other challenging qualities that can have a serious impact on people's lives. We don’t say, “my mother, the blind,” or “my brother, the bipolar.” We don’t say, “my best friend, the epileptic,” or “my nephew, the leukemia.” 

We don’t do that because we intuitively understand how odd it would sound, and how disrespectful and insensitive it would be. We don’t ascribe a difficult state as the full sum of a person’s identity and humanity. Maia Szalavitz eloquently expressed similar frustration with terms like “substance abuser” in her recent piece at substance.com.

When we do feel the need to reference a state of disability, challenge or disease when describing a human being, we say something like, “my mother has cancer,” or “my nephew has leukemia.” And we would almost certainly never let that be the only thing said about that person, something that defined them.  We do not say or suggest that a person is their challenge. We remember that they are a person first, then if appropriate indicate their challenge as one factor of their existence.

Why can't we be that intelligently sensitive with people struggling with drugs?

For many people, myself included, the word “addict” is incredibly harmful and offensive. You do not have my permission to call me an addict. You can of course refer to yourself as an addict, if you wish, but please do not refer to everyone physically or psychologically dependent on drugs as “an addict.” 

The sense of fear, loathing, otherness and “less than” created by that word far outweighs any benefits of using linguistic shorthand to quickly describe a person. “Addict” is a word so singularly loaded with stigma and contempt that it’s somewhat appalling that we continue to let it be used so easily and indiscriminately.

Even in a chaotic stage of drug use, we are not “other.” We are women, we are someone’s daughter, we continue to laugh, we continue to like jazz and cheeseburgers and comfy pajamas. We cry, we get so lonely, we hate sitting in traffic. Addiction can be wretched, no question, but we do not ever stop being human beings, even during the times in our lives when we are dependent on drugs. 

I may be in the fight of my life with drugs, but I am not the drugs that I take. I am a fighter, a survivor -- I am never merely “an addict.” Please  do not destroy the totality of who I am by reducing me to that one word. We retain our full humanity despite our challenges, particularly when our challenges are much deeper than our attention-grabbing drug use might suggest.

My days of chaotic substance abuse are long behind me. I am not “an addict” now, and I wasn’t “an addict”  then. I’m just a person, who had a period of difficulty, pain and challenge. I battled, I failed, I tried again—just like most people.

Why not try using any of the following as alternatives to calling someone “an addict”: person dependent on drugs; people struggling with drugs; person in recovery from addiction. The use of person-centric language may seem inconsequential, but I assure you, it is not. It is vitally important to scores of people, most of whom you’ve never met and never will. They are the people who, in the eyes of the world, are lumped into that “other” category you’ve created for them by calling them “an addict.” 

They don’t want to be there anymore. I’m hoping to tell their story with this blog post. We’ve been silent too long. We’ve had enough. Please—put our humanity first.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog

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