The general public often use the word Addict as a term of abuse, but it shouldn’t be. It’s never a complement, but the degree of stigma associated with it depends on the setting where the word is used. Within a group of people with an addiction, the word can be used as a simple description of someone, in the same way as they might describe someone as being homeless, or married.
So being described as ‘an addict’ by fellow addicts generally carries no stigma, or disapproval. In fact it’s sometimes regarded as a status symbol, or a right of passage, into the group. But when said by anyone outside the group, to someone within the group, it can be felt to be a word of abuse and stigma.
One definition of ‘stigma’ is:
“Three out of four people with a mental illness report that they have experienced stigma. Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. When a person is labeled by their illness, they are seen as part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes create prejudice, which leads to negative actions and discrimination”.
Many people with addiction already feel guilt and shame because they have lost control over their thinking and behavior, so they are already vulnerable to being shamed and humiliated by others.
Therefore it’s best to not use the labeling-word, addict, when talking to someone with an addiction, because they will probably feel you are making a moral judgment about their behavior, even if you are not. This will probably be a barrier to helpful communication.
People with an addiction are people with a brain disorder which has been caused by taking drugs. It’s a medical problem, not a moral one. Over time, they have developed structural and functional changes in their brains which affect how they think and behave.
Like depression or anxiety, they have a mental disorder, not a lack of willpower, and they deserve to be treated with respect, and to feel respected.
One place where using the word addict does not carry a negative meaning, is in Rehabilitation treatment. One of the goals of rehab is to get the person to acknowledge that they have a problem.
It’s very natural for us all to find excuses for what we see as our faults and weaknesses. These justifications serve to protect us from some reality about ourselves we feel is too shameful to admit to. It’s a normal defense mechanism.
And it isn’t always as extreme as protecting ourselves against shame. Sometimes, it’s simply so we can continue doing something we know we shouldn’t really be doing – some guilty pleasure such as eating way too much chocolate or ice-cream.
We want to keep doing it even though we know it’s not good for us, so we manufacture ‘reasons’ which are really excuses so we can keep doing it anyway.
We all do that in various ways. It’s normal. We do it so we can justify something to ourselves, so we invent excuses for our behavior, in order to allow ourselves to continue doing it, even though we know we shouldn’t.
For example, many of us still smoke. It’s another everyday example of how we tell ourselves all sorts of excuses and ‘reasons’ why we continue to smoke. These mind games allow us to put off quitting, even when we know that quitting is the sensible thing to do.
For someone with an addiction, this need to continue doing what they do is overwhelming. It’s only natural that they defend their sense of themselves against what is unacceptable to them – the shame of having lost of control over their behavior. They do it by using exactly the same sort of mind games that we all use to excuse ourselves for our failings.
Just like us, they do it so they can continue doing what they know they shouldn’t do, or can’t stop doing.
One of the first steps in overcoming an addiction of any sort is to honestly admit to ourselves that we have a problem. It’s not easy.
But as long as we continue to deceive ourselves that we don’t have a problem, we are not in a frame of mind where changing our behavior is something we genuinely want to do. And if someone doesn’t really want to change their behavior, it’s not going to happen.
One of the ways that people in rehab declare to themselves, and others, that they admit to having a problem is to say “My name is ……, and I’m an addict”. When used like this, by someone talking about themselves, the word is not a term of abuse.
In fact it is the opposite – they are deliberately choosing to accept this negative label as being a fact, and by doing that, they are publicly declaring they are prepared to take on the struggle within themselves, to change it. They are openly declaring they will stop hiding behind excuses and justifications, and will face the reality they find themselves in.
For someone with an addiction, accepting and openly declaring that you are an ‘addict’ is an extreme act of courage, not an admission of failure or weakness.
On this website, I will sometimes be using the word ‘addict’ because it’s convenient, but I will never, ever, use ‘addict’ in a pejorative or negative sense.
For more information on this topic, please read my article: Is Alcoholic a Term of Abuse?
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