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Dirty Words

Understand that the “rest of the world” doesn't understand

After years of working in recovery circles, the terms “alcoholic” and “addict” are no longer dirty words to me. They’re simply terms that describe variations on a disease. But I’m fully cognizant of the fact that those words, when used with the general public, evoke the sort of recoil that “leper” or “sex offender” do. So, if you’ve decided to stick around you’re going to have to move past considering the opinion of the masses. This is especially true when “the masses” include your own extended family and friends.

I have a close friend whose partner is an active alcoholic. We shared an email exchange in which he apologized to me for his partner’s drunken behavior at a party. I responded with, “Buddy, there is no need to apologize. Believe me, I get it. No one understands what it’s like to love a person with alcoholic tendencies more than I do.”

Now, mind you, the response I was expecting was something along the lines of, “Thanks. It’s nice to know that someone really understands.” Instead, what I received was, “To be clear, Kelly is NOT alcoholic. She simply doesn’t know when to stop drinking once she starts, and I have to babysit her.” Oh, okay dude, whatever. I had used the dreaded “A” word and he was not going to sit still for that, regardless of the support being offered. He wasn’t going to have his lady branded with the “Scarlet Letter” of our time. These are people who are very dear to me, people I would very much like to help guide toward a solution to their misery. But, they can’t hear me. The “words” get in the way.

Because addiction is most often treated as some sort of personality shortcoming by the mainstream media and in the court of public opinion, those outside the world of recovery seldom grasp the true nature of the disease. For your own sanity, you have to get to the place where you’re okay with that. This can be a tough one for us. As we become more educated about addiction and treatment, it becomes blatantly obvious that the largest hurdle in treating the disease is the misconception that it is not one. We want to scream the truth from the mountain-top and make the rest of the world understand. The thing is; the rest of the world won’t hear us. They are too immersed in their own fear.

The reason these words create such recoil is completely fear-based. When you recognize that, it becomes much easier to feel compassion rather than contempt for this sort of response. They’re afraid.

The general public is afraid of what they do not understand. They are also afraid of not knowing how to behave when the topic comes up. Comedian Jim Gaffigan sums the reaction up succinctly. He says,

“When you don't drink, people always need to know why. They're like, 'You don't drink? Why?' This never happens with anything else. 'You don't use mayonnaise? Why? Are you addicted to mayonnaise? Is it OK if I use mayonnaise? I could go outside.’”

Jim illustrates the general public’s reaction perfectly. They are afraid of their own embarrassment at not knowing what to do or how to act.

The addicted person is afraid of the label not only because of the social stigma, but because it makes the problem “real”. Before the label comes into play they can continue to use and believe they are fooling everyone. Once the “words” are used the game changes-for everyone.

The loved ones are afraid for a multitude of reasons. Most are afraid that, in some form or another, they are to blame; and with THAT we can certainly identify—because we’ve been there. Remember that paralyzing fear that you had been contributing to your person’s problem? Remember the anger at yourself and stupidity that you felt when you realized that you hadn’t seen the problem for what it actually was? Remember knowing within yourself that your person probably had a problem and being terrified that someone would point it out? Remember having to analyze your own behavior and question whether you, yourself had a problem? Remember the fear that if you used the “words” with your person that they would abandon your relationship? Of course you do. We all do.

So, when these situations arise where you find yourself on the receiving end of the “dirty word” recoil; remember the fear that you had. Your knee-jerk anger will melt into understanding, and the need to convince the “rest of world” for that moment will leave you. You might even find that remembering where you used to be will remind you of how far you have come. And, at the risk of being horribly cliché, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

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