The stigma associated with alcoholism is the barrier that prevents people from admitting their truth and curing their disease. And the stigma is a product of the words we choose to describe this affliction that kills three million people a year.
You have a drinking problem. You need to get help.
A deeply imbedded splinter is a problem. A flat tire is a problem. The brain disease suffered by over fifteen million Americans is way more than a problem.
When I moved a couch from my upstairs to my downstairs, I needed help. When the city made me remove a mostly dead tree from my yard in the interest of public safety, I needed help. When my arms were full as I approached a door, I needed a little help.
When I became addicted to one of the world’s most addictive substances, I didn’t need help. I needed a treatment plan based on neurological research and experience.
You might think this linguistic specificity is just nitpicking. Here’s the thing: The reason only a small fraction of those fifteen million American alcoholics seek treatment is because of the shame they feel for the condition they have contracted. When we describe the thing that is wrecking our lives as a problem, the shame is dramatically enhanced. It makes us feel weak and worthless to think that a little problem is bringing us to our knees and destroying our relationships and our grasp on sanity. The overwhelmingness of the “problem” in and of itself makes asking for “help” unimaginable.
The lesson we have learned from Black Lives Matter and about how we talk about sexual assault in 2019, and even understanding how to defeat the most deadly addiction epidemic (alcoholism, not opioids), is that words matter. In fact, the words we choose really make all the difference.
“All lives matter,” and, “it was just a little pat on the ass,” are just words, but they are words that completely miss the point and are totally devoid of empathy. Do you know what else misses the point and shows our ignorance? Describing the most prolific disease of our own human creation and propagation as a problem.
I know that statement is dramatic, and I’m not trying to start a political battle by referencing such heated social issues. As Michael Jordan famously said when asked why he stayed out of politics, democrats and republicans both buy shoes. I write enough controversial things about addiction, and I don’t want to alienate readers on the basis of politics. But words are powerful. This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about showing compassion and empathy for the plight of our fellow humans. If our words don’t do that, we disregard their pain. Then we wonder why they don’t grow thicker skin or get a sense of humor or develop some damn willpower.
Words matter. We can choose to empower and heal, or we can choose to exacerbate stereotypes and stigmas. The words we choose can lead toward healing or destruction. When it comes to alcoholism, our vocabulary is steeped in a tradition of disrespectful persecution and centuries of normalization. How can we ever hope to solve this “problem” when we make alcoholics feel like they aren’t meeting the minimum standards of humanhood?
One of Robin Williams’ most often repeated quotes is, “Everyone you know is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” I don’t think that is his original sentiment, but his well publicized battle with alcoholism and drug addiction, along with his eventual death from suicide, will forever bond his image to those words.
Robin Williams understood the impact of words. His legendary and inventive humor only slightly eclipses his well documented generosity and kindness. His gift given to humanity was taken from us decades too early not because he had a problem, but because he used chemicals to make his chaotic mind tolerable, and those chemicals killed him. He didn’t die because he was weak or lacked willpower. He didn’t die because he had a problem. He died because he didn’t know the lethal side effects of the substances that brought peace to his brain. He didn’t get what he deserved because he partied too much, played with fire and ran with the wrong crowd. Robin Williams died because his disease killed him. Those words are the painful truth.
I coach high school soccer. Words matter there, too. When I’m in a bad mood and run my kids through drills barking orders and pointing out mistakes, we don’t play very well. When I ask them about their day before we get to work, point out exemplary effort and make a big deal about small improvements, those kids will run through a brick wall for me. And they play better. Don’t misunderstand. I don’t believe in participation trophies, and I want to win. But I’ve learned that words matter. If I use the right words the right way, my kids feel good. And when they feel good, they perform better in school and on the field.
But more importantly, when my kids feel good, they feel good. That’s not a side effect, that’s the point.
So how do we use the right words to reverse the trend and get the epidemic of alcoholism under control? I think we need to stop equating addiction to a splinter, and take it as seriously in the words we choose as we know alcoholism to be when it affects our families. Let’s stop talking about teetotalers and people falling off the wagon and get serious. Can you imagine describing a person’s cancer coming out of remission as them falling off a wagon? It is more than uncompassionate. Words like that lack either empathy or intelligence. Either way, they are deadly.
If you or someone you love is suffering at the hands of alcohol, don’t ask for help. Take the action you would take with any other chronic disease. Do your research. Consult with experts. Read about the latest discoveries (in brain chemistry in the case of addiction), and find a treatment that suits your situation. Just like with most serious afflictions, you might have to try a variety of treatments to bring your disease into remission.
It’s not as easy as asking for help to fix a problem. If it was, anyone with couch moving experience would be qualified and alcoholism statistics would be going in a better direction.
Words matter, and we talk about the power of clear, accurate, positive words to enhance alcoholism recovery in our SHOUT Sobriety group. If you are a high-functioning alcoholic who is ready to get serious about getting healthy, we hope you’ll consider joining us.