Words Matter

Sometimes I cringe in the Mom’s groups when I read texts between their addicted loved ones and themselves. The spite and anger that addiction causes are so often fed right back to them in such venom that it’s hard to know who has the hijacked, damaged brain.

Oh I know. I’m well aware of the intensity of those useless arguments and I’m certainly no saint when it comes to yelling at my son at what an idiot he’s being. But I have learned that I’m the one with the healthy brain too. I should be modeling healthy coping skills. I should be guiding how to unconditionally love someone but with clear loving boundaries.

Mountain Laurel Recovery Center had this great article on unhelpful words:

Words Hurt: 5 Things Not to Say to Someone with an Addiction

1. You’re So Selfish

People who are struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol can do or say things that are completely out of character. This includes lying, cheating, and acting in ways that are selfish. However, this doesn’t mean they are selfish people. It only means that their addiction has caused drastic changes to their judgement and impulse control.

Even though it might not seem like it, your loved one is probably experiencing a great deal of guilt and shame. People with addiction often know they’re upsetting their loved ones, but feel powerless to break the cycle.

It’s better to say:

I love you, but I don’t like how you act when you’ve been drinking.

You hurt my feelings when you didn’t show up to my birthday celebration because you were hungover.

I am worried about how your drinking is affecting your health.

2. You Have No Willpower

Addiction is a biologically-based brain disease. It’s not a character defect, so all the willpower in the world isn’t going to be enough to keep your friend or family member from seeking out drugs or alcohol.

The best way to treat addiction is with a medically-managed detox, followed by intensive therapy to develop the coping skills that are the foundation for lasting sobriety. Holistic treatments such as yoga, meditation, art therapy, or music therapy may also be used to promote healing of the mind, body, and spirit.

It’s better to say:

I care about you and I want to see you get the help you need.

Let’s make an appointment to talk to your doctor together.

Getting sober won’t be easy, but I believe in you.

3. When You Hit Rock Bottom, You’ll Be Sorry

One of the biggest myths about addiction is that someone can only get help after something terrible happens like an auto accident caused by a DUI or a near fatal overdose. However, studies show that early intervention is the best approach.

Health issues are always easier to address when they are in the early stages. Think of substance use disorders as being similar to having Type 2 diabetes. If someone learns to manage their blood sugar with lifestyle changes and medication, they reduce the risk of complications such as nerve damage, vision problems, stroke, or kidney disease.

It’s better to say:

I’ve noticed you started drinking more after you lost your job. How are you feeling?

I’m worried about the path you’re on.

You’re caring, funny, and a great friend, but you seem angry and withdrawn lately. I think you should talk to your doctor to see if he can help.

4. Going “Cold Turkey” Is the Best Way to Quit

It might seem like abruptly stopping alcohol or drug use would be the most effective way to get sober, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, abrupt withdrawal from opioids, benzos, or alcohol can trigger dangerous and potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal can also pose additional risks when someone is abusing multiple substances, has a co-occurring mental illness, or suffers from a serious health condition such as high blood pressure.

The safest and most effective way to get sober is by undergoing detox in a supervised treatment center. Mountain Laurel Recovery offers 24-7 nursing care as part of its detox services and works to make the process as comfortable as possible for each client.

It’s better to say:

Let’s work together to get you the help you need.

I know withdrawal seems scary, but the long-term effects of drug or alcohol abuse are even more frightening.

If you’re ready to quit, I will support you every step of the way.

5. You’ll Never Change

Watching someone who has been doing well in treatment suffer a relapse is understandably disappointing, but it’s important to realize that addiction is a chronic illness characterized by the risk of relapse. People in recovery are vulnerable to relapse in times of stress or if they become complacent about their sobriety.

A relapse doesn’t mean that change is impossible. It simply means your loved one needs to reevaluate their care plan and determine what adjustments are necessary to provide the support they need. At Mountain Laurel Recovery Center, we’re committed to helping clients find ways to move forward after relapse.

It’s better to say:

We’re proud of how far you’ve already come. We know you can get back on track.

Making mistakes doesn’t make you a failure.

I know you’re frustrated, but I have faith in you.

These next 2 articles are about the language surrounding addiction that we’ve been hearing so much about.

The Tongue has the Power of Life and Death



My dad gave me piece of advice when I was a know-it-all teenager. He said, “Never say in anger what you don’t mean, because you can say you’re sorry, but you can’t take it back.”

Satan can use our tongue to cause division, putting others down, bragging, false teaching, exaggeration, complaining, or just flat out lying. It only takes a few words to hurt someone. Wounds heal but they leave scars that never disappear.

OTop of Formur words have power. They can bring joy or cause misery. Proverbs 18:21 puts it this way: “The tongue has the power of life and death.” The stakes are high.

Your words can either speak life, or your words can speak death. Our tongues can build others up, or they can tear them down. An unchecked fire doubles in size every minute. Gossip and false teaching are no different. It’s been said that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.

The church that James is writing to in James 3:1-12 was full of small-minded people who gossiped about each other and tore one another apart with their tongues. We’re quick to avoid the sins of murder, stealing, and drunkenness, but we often assassinate fellow believers and leave a trail of destruction by the way we use our tongues.

Husbands have stabbed their wives with words that are as sharp as daggers.

Wives have lashed out with tongues that slice and dice.

Parents have devastated their children by repeated blasts of venom.

And children have exploded at their parents with words that have leveled the entire family like a bomb.

James’ Letter

Look at what’s written in the first chapter of James’ letter: James 1:19 “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;” And verse 1:26, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” If you and I launch verbal destruction, those words will have devastating consequences on others.

James connects sins of the tongue with sins of the body because our words usually lead to corresponding deeds. Proverbs 21:23 says “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.” The tongue can express or repress; offend or befriend; affirm or alienate; build or belittle; comfort or criticize; delight or destroy.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” We all know that isn’t true, don’t we? Actually, psychological pain is much more severe and lasting than physical pain. More people than we might think harbor scars from psychological abuse as children. Those scars are on their hearts and they influence their lives.

Words can break our hearts. Words can break our spirits. Broken bones can heal with time, but a broken spirit caused by words of death, isn’t easily repaired. How many people have you maimed or killed with your words? Is your tongue too quick to criticize? Do your words build up…or do they tear down?

So how do we tame our tongue? Did you know that the book of Proverbs has 31 chapters? One for every day of the month. I’m going to read one chapter of Proverbs and one chapter of James every day for the next month. I invite you to do the same. Nearly every chapter of Proverbs has something to say about the tongue. At the end of the month, we’ll have read the entire book of Proverbs once, and the book of James six times.

The Aviary Recovery Center says this about language:

Just Like Sticks and Stones, Words Can Be Very Hurtful

Nov 13, 2019     

When Addiction is the Topic

You know the old saying: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? It would be wonderful if each of us could simply ignore the negative things others might say to or about us. But our day-to-day experience would suggest that we are not, in fact, very good at disregarding the mean or inaccurate comments of other people—whether said to our face, behind our back, or online.

And sometimes we can even be hurt by words spoken by someone who has no intention of causing pain. Sometimes we all say hurtful things without understanding what makes them hurtful—or even that they are hurtful. This is certainly true when it comes to ways in which we talk to and about those struggling to overcome addiction.

Watching Our Language

We use many words associated with addiction without even thinking about it. But some of those words do more harm than good.

Take, for example, the word “abuse”—as in “drug abuse.” That’s a common and widely used construction. It is also problematic for a number of reasons. When people hear the phrase “drug abuse,” they tend to think about illegal drugs rather than prescription medications or alcohol.

Also, the word “abuse” is understandably linked to behaviors like child or domestic abuse. Both of these connotations of the word “abuse” can lead to an inaccurate understanding of what a person is going through.

To alleviate that problem, experts recommend using the term “substance use disorder” instead of “drug abuse” or “substance abuse.” Here’s an easy way to remember this distinction: “substance abuse” is inaccurate because the person with the substance use disorder isn’t assaulting or otherwise harming the substance. Instead, the substance and its use is harming the person.

In the same way, it is helpful to avoid a phrase like, “Jason has a drug problem.”

Jason may well have problems caused by drug use, or what might be called drug-related problems. But the construction “drug problem” does not accurately represent the full context of Jason’s life and situation. What are the contributing factors to Jason’s substance use? How best can they be addressed? How can we demonstrate support for treatment rather than judgment?

These are important questions to consider when we are tempted to shrug off the ways in which lazy language can contribute to—rather than help alleviate—the difficulties an individual is facing.

Shame is Lame

When the ways we talk about addiction contribute to a sense of shame, we are making a problem worse rather than better. The shame a person with a substance use disorder feels can prevent them from seeking the help they so desperately need.

And what if you are the person who is on a recovery journey? What can you do to reduce the shame you may be feeling—and to help ensure that others don’t feel that same kind of shame? Some steps you might take include:

Acknowledging your substance abuse disorder

Being honest and straightforward about your situation and your feelings about it

Building a strong support system (including professional treatment and ongoing care)

Becoming an advocate for better understanding and less shaming language

Working toward specific goals

Discovering the coping skills that you can rely on when things are difficult

Realizing that some people will never understand your situation

Those steps are all about personal empowerment and ensuring that you are not contributing to your own feelings of shame. That empowerment will ideally include the confidence to let those around you know when their words are hurtful instead of helpful. Clear communication and gentle reminders when someone slips into old patterns of speaking can help ensure that you encounter less painful language while you work toward lasting sobriety. The people who are part of your strong support system—your family, your close friends, your sponsor—will want to know when the language they use becomes a stumbling block for you.

The Insensitive, the Bullies, and the Clueless

Some people simply won’t adopt new language for talking about substance use disorders. Maybe they think this kind of thing is politically correct malarkey. Maybe they think people who use drugs or alcohol are losers who deserve to be shamed. Maybe they just can’t quite figure out how to consistently make the change in the way they talk and think about things.

So what should you do when you encounter these people? In the end, it is up to you to determine the best course of action for yourself. You may find that there is a big difference in your ability to handle insensitive language from a relative who means well than, say, from a coworker who refuses your request to use different language when talking about your situation. Avoiding negativity and the people who promote it is a good coping skill, and one you should feel empowered to employ when necessary.

Barnstable County Human Services

Published by

Samantha Waters

A unique perspective on the world from a small town girl turned big city nurse. Now a grandmother to 6 gregarious, resplendent boys and 5 endearing, magical girls, she strives the make the world a more understanding, pleasant place to experience this intense thing called life.

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