Drug addiction is a growing problem throughout the United States. Whether referring to alcohol, nicotine, or illicit drugs, it’s been estimated that over 40 million Americans are addicted to various substances. While it may be technically correct to refer to these people as addicts, the term has come under criticism in recent times. In fact, many of those who are experiencing drug abuse issues are standing up and saying, “Stop calling me an addict!”. What is the problem with referring to those who are addicted to drugs as addicts? How do we keep the person separate from the problem and therefore promoting a spirit of healing? The following information will further address the stigma that can sometimes occur surrounding the term ‘addict.’
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To further understand how specific terminology can affect a person’s opinion of another, we need to differentiate between physical dependency on a substance and a full-blown addiction.
What is Chemical Dependency?
Dependency is described as a physical response to the use of a medication or illicit drug. If a person is physically dependent on a particular substance, they will experience specific side effects if they discontinue use of this substance. A common example most of us have experienced is seen in the withdrawal effects caused by discontinuing caffeine usage. When a person is used to consuming caffeine daily, they will often experience negative effects such as a headache or extreme fatigue if they suddenly stop. These physical reactions show that their body was in a state of dependence on the caffeine in order to function in a normal manner. While many people confuse this as an addiction, dependency and addiction are very different entities.
What is Addiction?
Addiction is a complex problem that begins within an individual suffering from physical, emotional, or mental pain. Whatever substance the person is addicted to, the problem came from within and not from the substance itself. Addiction is often described as an intense feeling of having a genuine need to consume a specific substance to obtain relief from pain. Many people develop an addiction to a specific substance because they are attempting to escape a painful part of their lives. Whether they are dealing with physical illness, loss of a loved one, emotional or physical abuse, or any other traumatic event, addiction becomes an escape mechanism.
The Dangers of Creating a Stigma
What is wrong with saying that someone addicted to a particular substance is an addict? Technically, the term is correct. However, it can also create a negative stigma that attaches the blame directly on the person suffering from the addiction. This stigma of addiction can permeate society and potentially keep those affected by drug abuse from seeking the help they so desperately need. Individuals facing drug addiction need support, not judgment and ridicule. Feeling that they will be blamed for their situation or judged for it keeps many from seeking professional treatment.
Should We Stop Using the Term ‘Addict’?
Both individuals affected by drug abuse and professionals involved in treating them have recently suggested that it may be beneficial to stop using the term ‘addict’ in association with those who have this problem. Being referred to as an addict feels impersonal to many of those suffering from drug abuse. They know that they are so much more than an addiction. They are people just like the rest of society. They are mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. They are employees trying to stay afloat and care for their families. In the overwhelming majority of ways, they do not differ from any of the rest of us. Therefore, it is understandable that they want to be known as more than simply the problem they are currently dealing with.
Keeping the Person Separate from the Problem
In much the same manner that a diabetic would not want to be known simply for the disease they have, an individual suffering from addiction is a person first and foremost. A vital part of helping these individuals overcome their addiction is to help them feel whole. They were a complete individual before they become addicted to a substance. Likewise, they need to feel like a complete individual with a purpose now that they are struggling with addiction.
The addiction and the person are two entirely separate entities. Recognizing this can keep the rest of society from placing the burden of blame on the individual suffering from drug addiction. It can also provide the hope and courage needed for these individuals to be able to seek proper treatment to recover from their addiction.
Drug addiction is a growing problem in the United States that can have devastating consequences for those affected. Through proper education and support processes, those who are dealing with these issues can reach out for the help they desperately need. It is important that those dealing with drug addiction know that treatment is available and a full recovery is possible.
About the author:
Nicole earned her doctoral degree in Psychology with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy at California School of Professional Psychology. Her doctoral thesis was a grounded theory study exploring the role of alienation and connectedness in the life course of addiction. She specializes in treating addiction and trauma. She is certified in DBT and EMDR, two of the most highly regarded evidence-based methods in psychotherapy. Dr. Doss is a strong LGBT advocate and provides open and affirming support to her LGBT clients.
Dr. Doss’s earlier education included graduating cum laude from the University of California, Irvine in June of 2007 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. While there, she received honors recognition by Psi Chi and Golden Key honor societies.
Nicole has been working with alcoholics and addicts in our California drug and alcohol rehab center as an advisor and counselor for many years. She is passionate about providing quality counseling and care to her clients. Her main focus is on integrating the 12 Step and disease models of addiction with experiential therapeutic theory. She is married to Greg; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.