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The Language of Addiction ... A Family Disease? Think again!


In his play Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare poses the question:  "What's in a name?"  He muses on the question by saying,  "That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet."

Well, I get the point... sort of, but I'm not sure I agree.  I bet if we called a rose a "stink blossom", or a "wailing tooth ache bud", it may not smell quite as sweet.  Why?  Because words have connotations as well as meanings and those connotations are what shape our perceptions.

This is not a novel idea.  People change the name of things to change the perception of things.  We've seen it happen time and time again.  Janitors became custodians, garbage men became sanitation workers, stewardesses became flight attendants and store clerks became associates.  What was behind all these name changes?  An attempt to provide dignity to positions, to wipe away old associations and start anew.

And so it is with the language used to describe addiction as well.  I understand the need to wipe away old perceptions of addictions, but I'm not sure we have found the right language yet.  Instead of "addict", it is suggested that we use "a person with a substance use disorder."  The idea is right, but we have just exchanged a two-syllable word for a ten+ syllable term which is a mouthful to say the least.  And "substance use" is not exactly a term routinely used by the general public.  We don't ask someone to pick up some "substance" on the way home or offer anyone "substance" when they come to visit.  "Substance" is a vacant word.  Though I have a Master's degree in English, I am hard put to come up with any meaningful definition for the word without relying on some outside source. 

I have a similar problem with exchanging the words  "relapse prevention" with "recovery management."   For me, recovery management brings up an image of a be-speckled nudge sitting in a cubicle crunching numbers and writing out agendas.  While I understand the effort to incorporate relapse into the whole concept of recovery and use terminology that supports the idea that addiction is a disease, language is communication after all and we cannot go so far afield with language that the ordinary man or woman on the street doesn't even know what we are talking about.

 Finding the right language to describe addiction may be a work in progress and I don't mean to in any way criticize efforts that have been made thus far.  However, there is one change that I do take issue with. While participating in Recovery Day activities this week, I found myself staring at signs that said  "Addiction is a family disease." I was a little taken aback by that and feel that it sends the wrong message   Let me clarify:  Addiction is a disease.  It may be a family issue, challenge, or dilemma, but it is not a family disease.

I was affected by addiction, but I was not infected by it.  Calling addiction a family disease seems to hearken back to the old idea that addiction is somehow caused by the people who live in the same household as the addict, that they are somehow nurturing addiction.  The families I know have done and are doing everything they can to help the person with a substance use disorder find help.  Addiction a family disease?  Sorry, but I just can't buy that.  And neither should you.


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