Words are powerful and persuasive. Language precedes behavior. How we describe ourselves to ourselves and how we internalize how other people describe us through vocabulary becomes self-fulfilling. In this regard, the first course of action you can take, and the most important starting point for you--or someone you love and care about who is currently experiencing distress in their lives and has learned to cope through their preoccupation with excessive habits and addictive behaviors--is to stop accepting the deficit-based language and negative connotations associated with them and rethink self-identity in healthier and more empowering ways.
For example, rather than using medieval terminology like saying you are “battling your demons,” you can tell yourself you’re stuck in patterns of automatic thinking, believing and acting that you learned early on in life and have not yet found a healthier way to cope. Rather than identifying yourself as an “alcoholic” or “drug addict” you can view yourself as a human being who has been overwhelmed with chronic stress, anxiety, and depression from the challenges and circumstances of your life and are having difficulty. You have learned and chosen to use alcohol and/or drugs in the attempt to minimize your distress.
In this way of reframing the language, an individual can become self-directed and gain insights into the contributing factors which have inhibited their ability to meet their subjective demands and regulate their emotions, rather than simply accepting old-school notions suggesting they are “possessed” or overwhelmed from something outside their control.
This new self-talk will stimulate brain changes which will directly affect cognition and emotions. The brain is a social organ of adaptation. Through the process of neuroplasticity we have the ability to rewire our brains by being mindful, open and receptive to improving the quality of our thinking and to new learning. Rather than simply reducing behavior to biology, it’s more useful to see the brain’s adaptability and rewiring ability as having a great deal of variability. An individual is far more likely to learn self-compassion when they are not labeled and pathologized by others for the sake of expediency and convenience.
Secondly, nobody knows what’s going on inside our brain on a molecular and cellular level at any given time. Everything we think, feel and do affects our brains. The only person who has an intimate view of our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behavior is ourselves. We all may seemingly have similar problems, but they’re never identical—and therefore we should not reduce people to simply brain areas, receptors, chemicals and lump them into groups.
A third course of action is to be more mindful of how the words that are being used to help someone may have a detrimental effect on them. The language of addiction is just a colloquial vocabulary, but it can be quite stigmatizing. For example, let’s say a 35-year-old woman who has been experiencing domestic abuse for years, is having symptoms of depression but has come to accept that she’s powerless and has little hope. She has turned to alcohol to numb her emotional pain. Her drinking becomes problematic and eventually she finds herself in treatment. If through this treatment process she is told she is an “alcoholic” “diseased” and “powerless” how does this improve upon the quality of her life?
Think about this logically. If you were a depressed person who believed you had nowhere to turn, and already felt alone, afraid, and helpless, do you really think that hearing you’re powerless and diseased too is going to empower and encourage you or further debilitate and depress you?
The fourth thing to rethink is how we understand what’s meant by the word “disease.” The reality is “addiction” is a socially-constructed term. The use of the word “disease” benefits the standardization and medicalized nature of the addiction industry. There is a major difference between a literal disease like cancer and a metaphoric one like addiction. Since the majority of people working in the field do not distinguish the difference between the two, they’re disseminating misleading information to millions of people because they have been taught to think with binary logic. Binary logic, creates a group-think mindset which attempts to explain matters in terms of all-or-nothing, black and white, and absolute certainty with no receptivity to different viewpoints. Therefore, binary logic undermines the realization that human cognition and emotions are individualistic and both variable and fallible.
A fifth course of action, is to view any addictive behavior as a type of learned “relationship.” Because we all have a need for love, approval and validation all addictive behaviors temporarily fill emotional needs. Our environment affects our subjective experience--which is largely driven by automatic, unconscious, stored responses to past experiences. Addictive behaviors vary from person to person by a variety of contributing factors, their duration and the degree of severity. All excessive habits and addictive behaviors provide two basic reinforcements. They temporarily increase pleasure and temporarily remove and/or avoid mental and emotional distress. Both have been learned.
Not everyone who receives a DUI arrest is an “alcoholic.” Not everyone who gets arrested for drug possession is a “drug addict.” But that’s how they are typically profiled because we don’t have any other language to address an individual’s unique subjective life. I believe there are millions of Americans who avoid help-seeking specifically because of this deficit-based, emotionally charged and negatively connoted language use.
Lastly, the primary objective for any treatment should be to create overall positive well-being. Any positive outcome derived through counseling, taking medication, going to therapy, or participating in groups, should lead to the reinforcement of autonomy, not maintaining and/or transferring one dependency mindset for another. Also treatment should help improve an individual’s quality of thinking, and enhance their authentic sense of fulfillment, satisfaction and equanimity. By valuing an individual’s subjective experiences and rethinking the language we use, we will be treating people with more kindness, compassion and empathy which is, after all, humane.