Sunday, November 8, 2015

Go Ahead, I Dare You.

I do understand this whole movement to change our language and how we identify ourselves, it makes perfect sense on an intellectual level. It's easy for the layman to digest and it helps to make a difficult subject matter and conversation a little lighter and prettier for everyone. Even more than understanding it, I appreciate the effort put forth by those at the helm of this movement. That said, and with all due respect to them, I'm just not buying it....

There are lots of reasons that I stayed silent for so long during my active addiction. Shame was the driving force though and a large part of where my shame came from was my perception of what it meant to be a "drug addict". It wasn't even so much that I didn't want to see myself as one of those people, it was more like I couldn't see myself as one of them. The image that my mind would conjure when hearing the word "addict" or "junkie" was so far from the person that I knew myself to be. It was a well known fact that drug addicts were bad people, that junkies were dirty and gross and everyone knows they're scum bags. I didn't want people to make the mistake of seeing me that way because I knew that I wasn't that way. I knew what was in my heart. I knew that all I wanted was to feel OK in my own skin, to know happiness, to believe in my heart of hearts that I was 'enough'. I wanted to bring joy into the lives of others. I wanted to make people happy, to make them laugh and feel at ease in my presence. I wanted to accept other people in all the ways that I could not seem to accept myself. These are NOT the characteristics of a junkie, right??? If I were to open up about my addiction, people might make the mistake of thinking that I'm a "bad" person; that I'm a "drug addict". They might not understand that I'm different than those people....I'm not a junkie, I'm just a person who ended up in trouble--not because I'm bad, but because I was desperate for relief from the pain I felt in my heart, and for a little peace and quiet from that mean voice in my head.

Softening the tone of how we identify ourselves might make it a little easier for both the addict and the rest of society to digest the "truth", but it doesn't solve the problem at hand. It's just a manipulation of words to try and get people to see past the labels and through to the human being behind them. It's an attempt to make us seem less threatening and to shed the stigma attached to the common words associated with drug addiction and alcoholism. While that's all well and good, it still fails to address the root of the problem, and if we fail to do that, I fear nothing (and no one) will every truly change.

When I share my story, whether it's to a room full of doctors, an auditorium of students, a circle of community members, or a one on one exchange, I am always deliberate in the language I use. It is never from a place of ignorance that I identify as a "drug addict", a "junkie", a "drunk", or a "crack addict". When I use these words; I'm actively taking back the paralyzing power they once had over me.

Words can be powerful weapons. Fueled by ignorance, labels like "drug addict" or "junkie", can sting, degrade, cause heartache, shame, and self hatred to someone who is already suffering so deeply. There is nothing that another person can say to (or about) us that is harsher or meaner than the things we say to ourselves. When someone tries to put us in a box, labeled with words saturated in hate and intolerance, we can't help but believe it's justified. When we're sick and suffering, all we can see is the bad stuff. How can a person possibly find the will to survive; a reason to fight back; how can they possibly find the faith they need in themselves to battle that monster within, if all we can see is the bad stuff???  As long as these words carry such harsh and negative connotations, they will continue to have destructive power over us.

As long as the ignorance lives; as long as society continues to see addiction as a moral failing; as long as people continue to believe that it can't/won't/doesn't happen to smart people who make good decisions, we are in trouble. No politically correct label can change the way society views drug addicts. No matter how we choose to identify ourselves, ignorance will prevail until enough of us are willing to stand up and share the truth about who we are. We must take back the power we've allowed these words to have over us. We can choose to shy away from those labels and attempt, in vain, to distract society with prettier, more vague terminology, OR we can choose to take ownership over them.  When a person uses a label like "drug addict" in a derogatory manner, they suggest that being a drug addict is something to be ashamed of. They suggest that this person's value as a human being is "less than". This attitude towards people who suffer from addiction is so ingrained in us that most of us don't even realize that we feel this way. But our reaction to the term "drug addict" says it all. For most people, hearing that does not induce sadness, sympathy, or compassion. Rather, it angers or disgusts us. It makes us think of awful, pathetic people. It reminds us of lives wasted.

It's not surprising that people are often a bit taken aback when I freely and openly admit to being a recovering drug addict. That reaction is exactly why I do it. That reaction is exactly why I choose not to identify myself with this new, pretty, more subtle language. I want to make people do a double-take. I want them to question how they can fit me into that narrow box in their minds that belongs to the dregs of society. I want to redefine our reaction to these words and the only way to do this is by educating the people around us.

Let us stand up and say, "This is what a 'junkie' looks like". Let us share our stories and own our experiences and prove that a human being's worth cannot be defined based on another person's narrow perception of their reality. Let us never forget that we're all doing the very best we can with what life has thrown at us and that we need each other to truly thrive and survive. We need to hold each other up, to offer strength and hope to one another, to show patience and tolerance to those in need. We need to learn how to recognize when someone is in pain. We need to learn how not to judge another person based on their inability to do what we can do, or see what we can see. We must work hard to stay mindful that we have NO idea what it's like to live in someone else's head, or to survive what they've survived, or to feel what they feel. Let us strip away our former perception of who a "junkie" is and find the human being stuck behind it. Because while it may seem far easier to stand in judgment of others today, sooner or later we all find ourselves in great need of that very thing we once couldn't be bothered to offer another.

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