Ask an Addict is a column penned by Helena Paivinen, a Kamloops scholar with expertise in addiction issues and someone who is also an addict. The column is meant to inform and help, which is particularly important as we remain mired in an opioid crisis that continues to claim thousands of lives each year. If you have a question you would like answered, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymity is guaranteed.
After revealing my identity in terms of this column, I received a private message from someone who lost her child to a drug overdose.
She forwarded information about language, the words that we use. I am thankful for any opportunity to discuss issues that matter.
Language does matter, yet in my indoctrination of higher education, I was taught to go further — that is, to respect one another and not impose my beliefs about how one should speak. Rather, I was encouraged to examine real intention, the real message behind the words that I chose.
My column is called Ask An Addict. In this age of political correctness, many object to the word “addict,” arguing it implies judgment and shame. We are asked to become conscious of this — an aspect with which I agree — that is, being conscious. We are then challenged to “take the pledge” and instead use the wording of “people who use substances” instead.
This is where I diverge.
It is not the words, but rather the intention. I think, that matters. Many in the recovery community claim the title of “addict” and “alcoholic” with pride as it helps us connect. It reminds us where we came from, what and who we are today. The words bond together and help us heal. In that regard, they are very useful indeed.
In my fifth year of sobriety, I flew back to my alma mater to make amends to two accomplished professors I adored. They believed in me and hinted about my being a special case doctoral student because, at that time, their institution did not offer a Ph.D. In my illness, I was oblivious. I did not hear their words. I disclosed I was an addict, at which they stopped me in mid-sentence, asking about my use of that word. You see, they believe in hope — not pathologizing, but focusing upon strength.
They knew that language could cripple or heal.
They also taught about me about belief — the power this has. My beliefs influence what I chose to see. One belief is that the word “addict” is useful to me. I shared this with the professors, telling them I needed to remember who I was and from where I came. If I forget this, I might just relapse. I do not reside in shame; I use my words to inform, to guide me today. In this manner, the word “addict” is useful to me.
It is the judgment that matters, more than the word. You may think you hold only acceptance toward people like me, but please consider this — due to my medical condition (not addiction-based).
I hired a housekeeper to come in for four hours per month. One day, she disclosed her history of addiction to me. Suddenly everything, yet nothing, had changed. She told me of a car accident, severe injuries and subsequent addiction with doctors’ prescriptions.I wish I could tell you her disclosure didn’t change anything, but because I know the relapse rate and what some people do in desperate times, I was sadly shocked to discover my new thinking with her. Suddenly, I was leery of leaving her alone in my house when it did not matter before.
I share this with you to show how difficult it is to bare this stigma and shame. I know what people in addiction do, as all you do, as well. This is what matters to me, more than the words you use.
Even though my friends and I know I am honest, good and decent, I contend with this judgment every day.
This is why I hid, for so many years. This — not your words — is what hurts me.