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Our Words Have Power

Our Words Have Power

Fairly often, I find myself fishing for the right word to use at the right moment. A phrase that might describe one flavor or color or experience perfectly would do injustice to another wonderful flavor, color, experience. Not only that – words have intense power to help or to harm. Since we likely all pause here and there to decide which descriptors to use for everyday items, why not take an extra minute to consider the words we use when talking about substance use disorder and recovery?

The Maine recovery community recently had the privilege of hosting YPR’s Program Director, Robert Ashford, for a series of YPR Messaging trainings. I was one of roughly 70 people who were trained over the course of three days and are now equipped with powerful and humanizing tools with which to speak about ourselves, our peers, and our recovery. Robert’s passion for the subject, everyone’s open-mindedness, and the training itself brought all three of the sessions to life and, by the end of each one, the group was collectively fired up and ready to use our newfound, empowering language in our recovery stories and everyday conversations.

Some of the most important shifts in terminology (and the reasons for them) are summed up in this chart:

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In the same way that I would not refer to someone experiencing depression as “Sue, the Depression”, I no longer refer to myself as “Bryn, the addict or alcoholic”. Instead, using person-first language, we can easily humanize addiction and recovery by calling ourselves and our community members “people in recovery”. These are simple AND powerful shifts! Still looking for another reason to make the changes to your vocabulary? The medical field backs it up. The DSM-5 has done away with the terms “substance abuse” and “substance dependence” and has replaced them with “substance use disorder”. As for why “substance abuse(r)” needs to be a phrase of the past, think for just a minute about the connotations brought to mind by “abuse”. For me, thoughts turn to domestic violence and deplorable behavior, rather than to a person who either needs treatment for, or has sought and overcome, a medical disease.

The bottom line when it comes to embracing a new dialect is this: the words on the left-hand side of the chart (above) stigmatize, while those on the right-hand side of the chart empower. Stigma is an invisible yet deadly force and it plays a large role in keeping people from seeking treatment and recovery. For a more in-depth read on the negative effects of stigma, and tips on what we can all do to ignite change in this area, check out this detailed and easy-to-follow Anti-Stigma Toolkit, which I found within an amazing article written by my friend, Alison Webb.

If it weren’t for the normalization of binge-drinking and the social shame attached to addiction, I may have entered recovery much sooner than I did. When news broadcasts, family members, teachers, and doctors, refer both to people who are actively using and people in recovery as “junkies”, “deadbeats”, “abusers” (we could go on, couldn’t we?), it’s easy to automatically feel like an inconvenience to society, regardless of where you are on your recovery journey.

There is an incredible amount of power that lies within humanizing language. One of my favorite moments from the YPR Messaging Training was the closing exercise in which people around the table get to stand up and tell two versions of their personal story. The first – our active use story – is intended to be told using the labels and ideas that many of us have internalized for months and years: addict, alcoholic, (excuse my French) shitbag, menace, etc. The second – our recovery story – is intended to use empowering, people-first language. My version of this story starts like this: My name is Bryn Gallagher, and I am a woman in recovery. For me, this means that I am able to be present for what has turned into an absolutely beautiful life. I am a daughter, a sister, a partner, a student, an activist, and more. Recovery has made it possible for me to be my strongest self in all of these roles.

A fellow YPR-member volunteered to stand up and share both of his stories with the group. As he began to tell his recovery story, he squared his shoulders, stood taller, and a grin spread across his face. The strength that comes with using empowering words is tangible. Why not talk about ourselves in terms of who and what we are: passionate and talented daughters and fathers and students and care-givers and world-changers! This goes for everyone – people still actively misusing substances, people in recovery, and recovery allies alike.

We have the power and the potential to affect real change in public perception and public policy. It is up to us to spread the word. Let’s do it!


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Bryn Gallagher
Blog Contributor

Life of Purpose Treatment
3848 FAU Boulevard, Suite 100
Boca Raton, FL 33431
Admissions: 1.888.PURPOSE

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