By D&M Consultants
Many people are cautious about using the term ‘addict’ to describe someone who has issues with substance misuse. This is largely due to the stigma associated with the concepts of ‘addict’ and ‘addiction’.
Public health folks, academics and practitioners have attempted to downplay the stigma of these words by using more neutral language like substance ‘abuse’, ‘misuse’ or most recently substance use ‘disorder’ (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
We (D&M) understand the motives for these attempts at changing the language and for many this is helpful. However, we would like to confront the term head-on and instead of avoiding it we want to reframe the term ‘addict’ and the concept of ‘addiction’ in a way that empowers people who live with this affliction.
What does the term ‘addict’ mean?
Let’s unpack the word ‘addict’ and the stigma that surrounds it.
In the early to mid-twentieth century the introduction of narcotic control through law enforcement, led to the development of the ‘dope fiend’ mythology and addicts began to be viewed as criminals.
The word ‘addict’ itself comes from the Latin ‘addictus’ which means ‘to devote, sacrifice, sell out, betray or abandon’ (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2021). The origin of the term is found in ancient Rome when someone who owed money could be assigned over [addictus] to a creditor and was effectively a ‘debt slave’ (Smith, 1875). As the use of the word developed over the millennia it came to mean someone enslaved by their desire to pursue a habit, usually a bad one.
The Centre for Behavioural Health Statistics and Quality (2017) report that despite 28% of individuals needing treatment for substance misuse, the most reported reason for not instigating support is due to stigma.
The label of ‘addict’ (or ‘alcoholic’) is still perceived negatively, and the implication is still that you are ‘morally bad’, weak and unable to control yourself (view the history of addiction).
Self-labelling as an addict
When we call ourselves an ‘addict’ – we are self-labelling with a stigmatised concept that belongs to a societal group generally seen in a negative light by mainstream society.
Our view is that by owning this label we are asserting personal power which lessens the negative impact of the stereotype on us. Examples of reappropriation of derogatory slurs include: ‘dykes on bikes’, or ‘queer’.
We have come to view the word addict as neutral much like any descriptor. It’s like saying we have blonde hair or blue eyes. We don’t apply a negative connotation. When we are unwilling or afraid to use the term ‘addict’ as a descriptor, it empowers the stereotype of what addiction has been constructed to mean. This feeds the stigma and perpetuates the negative image of addicts and addiction.
When we refer to ourselves as addicts, we are reminding ourselves, that we are not bad people who have a shameful flaw.
We are recovered addicts which means that addiction is part of our life story and journey; it is not the sum of who we are as people, and we are not defined by this part of our journey.
We can stand proud because we have faced the darkest recesses of our soul. We have done the inner work needed to recover our lives. The process of facing our greatest fears and being vulnerable in therapy and with others who support us has informed our development of our unique REFRAME YOUR LIFE program.
Adam, D. G., Cynthia, S. W., Jennifer, A. W., Eric, M. A., Kurt, H., & Galen, V. B. (2013). The reappropriation of stigmatizing labels: The reciprocal relationship between power and self-labeling. Psychological science, 24(10), 2020-2029. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613482943
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (2017), 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.
Online Etymology Dictionary (2021) Addiction https://www.etymonline.com/word/addiction
Smith, W. (1875) A dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities. John Murray: London.