Withdrawing from “Withdrawal”: The Language of Addiction Matters

    I’ve encountered several important essays around the language we use to describe substance use disorders and those who suffer from it, including “Why You Shouldn’t Use the Word ‘Addict.’”

    We throw around expressions like “junkie,” “addict” and “alcoholic” far too casually. I know from personal experience how demoralized my son, William, felt when people referred to him, or even taunted him, with the word “junkie.” We can all make adjustments in our language that will reduce the stigma around substance use disorder.

    I suggest we also take a look at how we appropriate the inappropriate language of addiction, a “second tier” of stigmatizing language.

    It’s too easy to say, even about oneself, “shopaholic” or “chocoholic.” We call ourselves addicted to anything from golf to running to espresso. We even use the word “junkie” to describe our passions. For example, I’ve been guilty of calling myself a “soccer junkie.” There are musical theater junkies, Chinese food junkies, political junkies, sports junkies, you name it — there’s a junkie for it. We use the words “junkie,” “addict” and “habit” freely, most always with a pejorative, moralizing tenor that suggests simple willpower as an antidote.

    It is clear to me and many others that we need to change the language we use if we are to lessen the stigma that saturates the perception of addiction, and even well-intentioned discussions of addiction. Certainly, that change needs to occur before we can ever begin to alter the language of the fearful, the judgmental, the bigoted and the hateful. It is a change that will likely take years, if not decades or more, but we must start now.

    Consider one more change. Think about our use of the word “withdrawal.” It is customary to speak of drug withdrawal as part of one’s recovery — a difficult, physical first step. I think of it differently.

    Withdrawal is the inexorable advance of the disease. It’s wholly a negative occurrence. Excessive time spent sleeping with no regard for the natural rhythms of day and night, lack of interest or motivation for former passions, less and less time and contact with friends, lack of concern about personal hygiene, deception to oneself and to others in service of substance use, avoiding engagement with family, outright hostility when confronted. A retreat from outstretched hands. Alienation from the best parts of oneself. A lack of appetite for life.

    Withdrawal is actually the last stop before starting the road to recovery. It is the outward manifestation of a disease’s dark, unremitting progress and a bridge to the first lights of recovery on the other end.

    The way I see it, I would exchange the term “withdrawal” as we use it now for the term “reentry.” A physically, emotionally, spiritually painful engagement with the world as it is. A painful engagement with one’s true self. A process that allows others back into one’s life, with truth as a tool and the recognition that the task can seldom be accomplished alone.

    The process of recovery is long and hard. Reentry is the first step. That step includes, at the least, an initial reduction of the substances we use to anesthetize our pain while we begin the challenging examination of the route we’ve taken, the pain we’ve endured and want to mask, the pain we may have caused others and want to forget, and the self-destructive habits we’ve learned.

    Withdrawal is not the beginning of recovery. It may be the beginning of the end. Reentry is an invitation, an offering to cross back over a threshold, the threshold to a more compassionate, understanding community. The threshold to a more compassionate, understanding time. A community that is sensitive about the language it uses in describing a disease.

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