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Some Words Hurt, Some Words Heal: The Language of Recovery

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Words make all the difference in our perceptions.

The word “addict” strikes us as a person who is dangerous, perhaps desperate.

But the phrase “person in long term recovery” means someone who is working to overcome their addiction. Now experts have discovered that by using “recovery-positive language,” we aren’t just re-writing the dictionary to be more politically correct.

Peer Recovery Specialist Jordan Coughlen doesn’t like to hear people say they’re an addict or an alcoholic.

“I encourage them to state that they are a person in long term recovery,” said Coughlen.

Phil Hammond recalls the words of his own doctor years ago, the very doctor who put him on strong pain medication in the first place.

“You’re a junkie now. I can’t have you as a patient,” said Hammond.

He says if you tell someone you’re an addict, they’ll remain polite, but their body language will give them away.

“You’ll see somebody maybe fidget a little bit, move a purse, you know, sit a little different to cover up their wallet,” said Hammond.

“That’s absolutely heartbreaking.  For someone who’s committed to long-term recovery, they’re not engaging in those behaviors so there’s no need to hide one’s purse from someone like that,” said Coughlen.

Valery Staskey with Partnerships for Success says language is changing in many arenas.

We wouldn’t think of calling someone “crippled” or “retarded” these days–terms that were used routinely a generation ago.

Staskey says labels become self-fulfilling prophesies.

“If we call people hoodlums, they’re going to see themselves as hoodlums,” said Staskey.

She says there’s no more scathing indictment of a woman, than to say she gave birth to a crack baby.

“It’s more positive to use the term “substance-exposed infant” rather than a crack baby,” said Staskey.

Hammond says the word “addict” on his medical chart means he’ll get treated differently than another person in pain in the emergency room.

“The natural assumption is that I’m drug-seeking. Although I’ve been abstinent for 16 years,” said Hammond.

“Words have an amazing power, either to harm or to heal,” said Coughlen.

Hammond, acting director of the Unity Center, says a very real part of the process is growing a thicker skin. He says people will use hurtful words, either unknowingly or maliciously.

“If you called me an addict today, you aren’t calling me anything I haven’t called myself. And usually far worse,” said Hammond.

“It’s healing rather than shaming. It’s so important to focus on the hope and the healing because that’s what’s going to get the people to seek out the treatment, seek out the help and seek out the recovery,” said Coughlen.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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