Something is amiss in recovery advocacy.
Earlier this week, the Surgeon General’s office tweeted the following paraphrase of a speech given by the Surgeon General. (Later clarified to be incorrectly transcribed.)
Addiction is not a moral failing and that it affects “good” families. Nice message, right? We need more influencers to say the same kind of thing, right? Not so fast.
Recovery advocates corrected him for using the word “addict” (some corrections were pretty generous, others were more scolding) and he responded with the following:
People with addiction have called themselves addicts for decades and I’m not aware of any in-group vs out-group differences in use.
John Kelly (2010) was the first person I recall focusing on the associations people have with various words related to people with addiction. That work has been extended by White, Wakeman, Ashford, and Brown.
This work started with words that have innate negative valences, like “abuse” and “dirty.” It’s since extended into all sorts of other words, like addict, relapse, and involves calls for “person-first language” (which emerged in the late 1980s for other populations).
My memory of the emergence of all of this attention to language was at the level of advocacy with storytelling. As a strategic matter, recovery advocates were encouraged to tell their stories with certain language that was found to be less likely to arouse bias and stigma.
On the one hand, this made pragmatic sense to me for advocacy efforts. On the other hand, this also felt backwards. Abandoning objectively neutral words because some people (usually people who hold a negative bias toward people with addiction) have attached negative associations to them seems like a recipe for tail-chasing. What happens when the new words acquire a negative association? Do we just keep changing terms as people with biases learn them and extend their bias to the new terms? (Also, who does this put in control of our language?)
We’ve already seen this happen. Opioid Replacement Therapy and Opioid Substitution Therapy were replaced by Medication Assisted Treatment, which is now on the bad list. This creates significant descriptive problems for the sake of stigma reduction–an early recovery advocacy goal was to distinguish treatment from recovery. The new preferred term, Medication Assisted Recovery, conflates treatment and recovery, undercutting a key message of methadone patient advocacy efforts.
The problem with the methadone community is we have too many people who think methadone is a magic bullet for that disease—that recovery involves nothing more than taking methadone.
This view is reinforced by people who, with the best of intentions, proclaim, “Methadone is recovery.” Methadone is not recovery. Recovery is recovery. Methadone is a pathway, a road, a tool. Recovery is a life and a particular way of living your life. Saying that methadone is recovery let’s people think that, “Hey, you go up to the counter there, and you drink a cup of medication, and that’s it. You’re in recovery.” And of course, that’s nonsense. Too many people in the methadone field learn that opiate dependence is a brain disorder, and they think that that’s all there is to it. But just like any other chronic medical condition, it has a behavioral component that involves how you live your life and the daily decisions you make.White, W. (2009). Advocacy for medication-assisted recovery: An interview with Walter Ginter.
So . . . I get the pragmatic and strategic reasons to encourage advocates to adopt certain language but question the wisdom of it. However, this has evolved from a strategy to be used by recovery advocates to a requirement of anyone making public statements on the topic, with call-outs for shaming and being an agent of stigma.
I also don’t understand whose wishes this represents. How many people with addiction object to or feel harmed by the term addict? Hasn’t our message been that we’re resilient and resourceful people who only want the same opportunities as everyone else–the elimination of discriminatory barriers to treatment, employment, school, etc?
I’ve also previously expressed anxiety before about treatment and recovery being drawn into culture war battles. (And, culture wars have only heated up over the last several years.) Of course, this isn’t a culture war hotzone, but the enforcement and call-outs give it a similar feel–that there are sides, and one side is righteous and fighting for justice, while the other side are agents of stigma, injustice, and discrimination.
- At what point do some of these efforts to reduce stigma alienate potential allies? IDK.
- How well do recovery advocates represent to the beliefs, preferences, and priorities of people with addiction? IDK. However, it’s difficult for me to believe that these reactions to this tweet are representative of the views of significant numbers of people with addiction outside of advocacy circles.