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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How to Talk About Addiction

 Anyone who has ever had a bout with addiction is well aware of the lingo, the street terms used to describe their affliction and the activities involved in engaging in addictive behavior. It would seem that for many, talking any other way then when they were actively using is impossible; phrases like “dope fiend” or words like “junkie” are commonly used amongst addicts, they become one’s way of identification - one’s own identity if you will. Long into recovery we often hear those same words or phrases being used time and time again, which begs the question, is it good for one’s recovery to continue to talk the way you did when you were using?

There is at least one professional in the field of addiction who believes that stereotypes about addiction can be unintentionally reinforced by addiction professionals and perpetuated by the media.
Dr. Edwin Salsitz

“When you go to a diabetes clinic, you don’t expect your doctor to have diabetes. But many people treating those who are addicted have themselves been treated for addiction, and tend to use the same lingo as their patients to make them feel more comfortable,” Dr. Edwin A. Salsitz, MD, Medical Director, Office-Based Opioid Therapy at Beth Israel Medical Center, said at a recent meeting, “Solutions to the Addiction Crisis.” “They use terms like ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’ to refer to a urine drug test, instead of the more medical ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ Using slang in addiction medicine can be confusing and demeaning, and reinforce the stigma attached to addiction.”

If we are going to treat addiction medically, those in the field of addiction should use medical terminology when treating their patients. Talking to a recovering addict on “their level” reinforces old behaviors, ways of talking and living that addicts are trying to do away with. Furthermore, the way addiction professionals speak unintentionally lends hand to how the media portrays addicts and addiction all together - in a way trivializing the disease.

Salsitz believes that his colleagues should choose their words carefully. “We need to use medical terms for addiction medicine,” he said. “I never use the word ‘addict’—that pigeonholes someone, and defines who they are. I always talk about addicted patients.”

The media uses the terms “addict,” “addiction” or “junkie” lightly, and newspaper headlines use terms such as “yoga addict” and “beauty addict”, according to Salsitz. The word “addictive” is used in a positive way, such as the phrase “lusciously addictive,” to portray something that is appealing, he noted. “Using these terms lightly makes it seem that addiction is not a serious disease,” he added. “When I see the trivializing of this terminology, it offends me.”

No one objects when the media portrays people struggling with addiction in a negative light, it is not considered politically incorrect, Salsitz pointed out; citing examples of jokes about methadone clinics made on two recent episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” and a pill joke Amy Poehler made at the recent Golden Globes Awards. Late-night hosts, such as Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel have made countless jokes about junkies and addicts, he said. “These jokes aren’t made out of maliciousness, they’re made out of ignorance, and no one objects. But they are hurtful to patients and their families.”

So what should we do as professionals? 

Perhaps in the beginning stages of treatment professionals should speak to the patient in the way that the afflicted understands easily and can relate to - as a way for the counselor and patient to get on the same level. As treatment progresses, hopefully in a positive direction, professionals should encourage their patients to refer to their past in a different way; thus reinforcing the new life that they are journeying towards.

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