Joe Biden, the man perpetually known for putting his foot in his mouth, actually said a very profound thing which I totally agree with:
“By changing the way we talk about addiction, we change the way people think about addiction”
Unfortunately, he said this while introducing a bill into the senate back in 2007 that would have officially made the government refer to addiction as a disease. That part, I don’t agree with, we should not call addiction a disease and we should not think of it as a disease. Nevertheless he’s right that definitions and terminology do deeply effect our thought processes. After all, we think mostly in words, and words are shorthand for concepts. If the concept we’ve learned is defective and wrong, then every time we use the word that refers to that concept we are, in effect, reinforcing belief in a falsehood.
I would love to redefine every negative concept surrounding substance use problems, but even redefining one piece of terminology is extremely difficult. I enjoy reading Ayn Rand, and she worked tirelessly to remove the negative connotation from the word “selfish“, she was very deliberate in how she explained what she meant when she was using the term, and she re-explained herself tirelessly. But even though she wrote two classic american novels of which one is an all time best seller, people still constantly misunderstand her use of that one term, and continue to misrepresent her views based on this misunderstanding. So if she can’t do it after 60 years of writing, and while continuing to sell a half million books a year, 30 years after her death, then I won’t waste my breath.
The term addiction was originally used to refer to bondage to a master – enslavement. Today, when we hear the term we generally think a negative behavior which a person is fundamentally incapable of stopping. Addictions are described as compulsive behaviors – meaning that they are involuntary. Furthermore, a majority of people, 80-90% according to most estimates, now believe that addiction is a medical disease.
Many people are working to reverse the acceptance of this concept, but even while doing so, they must still use the word “addiction” so that people will know what they are basically referring to. However, it should be understood, when I use the term “addiction” I’m usually referring to a problem of negative personal behavior which a person believes that they cannot stop, or has trouble stopping. I am referring to a bad habit. It becomes tiresome making similar disclaimers about the nature of these problems every time I talk, but I have to use the term for the time being.
Use The Power of Words
But what about you? You’re probably not fighting this battle against the myths of addiction. You may just be a person who has had trouble ending a negative habit. Should you still use the word addiction? Well, going back to what Biden said, that the words we use effect the way we think, my answer is: no, you shouldn’t refer to your problem as an addiction, and you shouldn’t refer to yourself as an addict (one who is addicted). If you keep using these terms in reference to your own problems, you reinforce the idea that your behavior is or was involuntary, that you were a slave to whatever the problem was (substances, shopping, gambling, etc.). You were not, and you never will be powerless over these problems. Likewise, identifying as an “addict”, especially after ceasing the behavior, is extremely dangerous, because it comes along with a wider concept of a person doomed to repeat the same unsuccessful behaviors again and again. You should replace these terms when referring to yourself, your history, and your future.
Here’s how to replace the negative terminology. Instead of addiction, refer to the problem as “a substance use problem”, or “substance abuse problem”. Either will do, since abuse can mean “misuse”, and that’s what you’ve done essentially. You’ve misused the substance in the context of your life – you’ve used it in a way which doesn’t bring you what you want – a happy fulfilling life. The other thing is the label: addict. This label does no good, and I don’t know that it should necessarily be replaced with another label. You can say “I had a substance use problem”, or “I am a former substance abuser”. These are the best recommendations I can come up with at this time, unfortunately, they can lead to wordy, or awkward speech patterns, but it does remind you that you are not enslaved, you are not powerless, you simply had a problem of personal behavior which you decided to end. Using these new words to refer to our problems reinforces a sense of personal responsibility, self-efficacy, and ownership of both our past and future.
In future posts I will review other loaded words and provide appropriate replacements. Remember, words are just labels for abstract concepts, when we keep using words that represent flawed concepts, we keep ourselves thinking in flawed ways – this will lead to unwanted and unsuccessful choices and behaviors.
This post is based on an exercise in my upcoming self-help book for people with substance abuse problems. I’ll post the full exercise in the future, but for now, just be ready to catch yourself using this loaded word and then be very deliberate about replacing it and clarifying your thought or statement.