I was in Russian class, trying to describe a character from a movie I watched recently. “Он наркоман,” I said–he’s a drug addict.
“Он страдает от наркомании,” my teacher corrected me. He suffers from addiction.
I was reminded of being at last year’s Harm Reduction Conference, where you’d sometimes hear about the need to stop saying “addict” and start saying “person struggling with drugs,” or similar variations. At first I was all, Oh come on, please let me speak English and not robot language. William S. Burroughs called himself a queer and so do I! William S. Burroughs called himself a junky and if the need ever arose so would I!
First, obviously, there are different rules for how we refer to ourselves and how we refer to others. I don’t agree w/everything here, but this piece makes one especially powerful point:
In the case of “substance abuse,” there is empirical evidence of the harm that this framing can do. In a 2010 study, researchers surveyed over 500 mental health practitioners at a conference—two thirds of whom had PhDs. Participants were asked to determine treatment for two hypothetical patients who were identical except that one was labeled as having a “substance use disorder” and the other was said to be a “substance abuser.”
Despite their training, the practicing clinicians favored a more punitive approach when the patient—who was described as having relapsed during court-ordered treatment—was labeled as being an abuser as opposed to having a disorder. More clinicians supported jail or community service rather than further treatment for the “substance abuser.”
But also, there’s a difference in my relationship to the language of sexual minority vs. the language of addiction. The first set of words doesn’t make me feel any twinge of shame. I have basically positive associations with stuff like queer and to a lesser extent dyke, though obviously I get that other people have had much worse experiences with them and that fact (I hope) colors when and how I use them. I have almost entirely positive associations with gay and lesbian. (I took one of those implicit-association tests and I’m in the minority who subconsciously prefers gay words to straight… science!)
Whereas I noticed at the conference that just being there was dredging up some shame, and I could tell that my silent defense of calling myself an alcoholic was, to some extent, pressing on a bruise. Some of that defense of “normal language” was also self-harm.
I think that’s partly because I did frame it to myself in terms of “normal people language.” I was accepting the idea that there’s this outside standard, created and applied by the good people, and since I had failed to meet that standard I had to wear whatever term they’d decided on. There was a certain savor of You earned it so stop whining, to which I’m always prone anyway.
I do still think there’s value in using the term “alcoholic” (or “addict” where it won’t be misunderstood) for myself. This value comes when I stop pretending it doesn’t hurt. There’s spiritual and moral value in openly acknowledging that it is painful and stigmatizing language, which I’m embracing for myself as a way of showing solidarity, in allegiance to my stigmatized community. And it can be a salutary spiritual practice in another way: an acceptance of oneself, one’s past, and one’s place in the world. Never forget what it felt like to live in rooms like these. For me I think these terms function somewhat like the “humiliating names” of the early Christians: “an act of humility — or perhaps an act of triumphant irony.”
Of course, what follows from this is that you can’t demand that someone else take on this identity or label. Humiliating someone else isn’t a Christian spiritual practice.