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Words Matter: Addiction

Words Matter: Addiction

Posted by Jessilyn Dolan on 3rd Mar 2021

In every aspect of my work, and over the many years and careers, I have come to learn the power of words. I always knew words mattered, but there are a few stories that helped drive it home for me.

For most of my nursing career I worked with pregnant people who were struggling with opioid use disorder (what many call addiction), and helped medically stabilize both the parent and the infant after delivery.

I remember sitting in my nursing office, going through paperwork to admit a pregnant person to the residential home I managed. She was due to have a baby any day, and had just come from the women's prison. Still wearing jail scrubs, she told me some of her story. While I was moved by all the challenges she’d faced, what stuck with me was when she said, “no one ever says they want to be a junkie when they grow up.” I had never thought of it in that particular way.

That word junkie is one we hear often, and it’s almost commonplace when it comes to heroin addiction. But after meeting her, and feeling the emotion behind that simple but powerful statement, something changed in me.

I always thought I was unbiased and supportive of my patients, but this one statement helped me understand the impact words can have, and the stigma and negativity patients feel on a regular basis. I saw her as a little girl, asking for help, and needing my support. Now, every time I meet a patient, I see the beautiful but scarred child within, trying to cope with their past, and the world today.

Babies are NOT addicts, and they should never be referred to as addicts.

Another component of my job was regularly monitoring urine drug screens for both prescription and illicit drug use. The typical descriptive language for urine screens was - and continues to be - dirty (meaning a positive urine screen for illicit drugs) or clean (meaning a negative urine screen for illicit drugs).

Again, it was a client that explained how being called “dirty” made her feel - shame and guilt, to say the least. Again, the emotions, the body language, and a small piece of her story changed me. I became the outspoken (and to some, annoying) nurse that would correct everyone and anyone regarding their choice of language for my patients, even if they were using derogatory nicknames about urine. I became particularly insistent with the language around my loves, their babies.

Honestly, after years of working with this population, what remains most dear to my heart (and my biggest activist soap box, if you will), are the babies. It's all about the babies. My babies. I fell in love with so many of my babies. And they too, changed me.

Babies are NOT addicts, and they should never be referred to as addicts. Babies can be born chemically and physiologically dependent on substances used while they were in utero, but they are NOT psychologically ADDICTED.

Let me shout it again from the mountaintops of Vermont: BABIES ARE NOT ADDICTS! Removing that word can help remove much of the associated stigma.

In fact, people are not ADDICTS - a word that so harshly defines them. They are people, struggling with opioid or substance use disorder.

Tell a child they are stupid over and over and what happens? They’ll start to believe it. Tell a child they are amazing over and over and what happens? They start to believe it. We know the words a person hears about themself have a profound effect on their self esteem, their reality, and their future.

We know words matter.

Photos by Jakob Owens (baby) and Brett Jordan (words) on Unsplash.

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