The Power of Language in Recovery

By Andrew Kiezulas

Words are the vessels of ideas.

For the better part of two centuries, this saying has cost the overall health of our society unfathomable amounts. I can certainly appreciate the sentiment of not letting words own, control and break you. However, the power of words undoubtedly holds extreme influence over each of us, and it begins at an early age. Children are told, “If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all.” By that logic, if you’re wondering how to do it “right,” then you don’t know how to do it right. Therefore, you aren’t going to do it right, so don’t do it. At all.

Similarly, the immediate implication of the “sticks and stones” children’s song is that only physical injury can really hurt someone. The subsequent connotation leads to the idea that physical pain is more real and more legitimate. Therefore, emotional and mental pain are less real, less legitimate and less impactful.

Decades of adverse childhood experience (ACE) research thoroughly highlights how harmful acute mental and emotional trauma is and how it remains in the developing brain, yet we still throw these phrases around as if they aren’t leaving people feeling accosted, broken and traumatized. We forget the research showing causality between ACEs and developing depression, anxiety, substance use disorder (SUD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After all, common brain chemistry symptoms of non-physical trauma only include excitotoxicity, leading to cytokine release, causing free radical oxidative damage, leading to DNA mutation (cancers) that cause neurodegenerative diseases (ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s) and PTSD, SUD, depression, learning disabilities, etc. Children of divorce are more likely to experience shorter education, unemployment, divorce, negative life events and more risky health behavior. Those aren’t caused by stick and stones, so why would they be hurt?

Similarly, the “Just Say No” slogan was well-intended but continues to prove completely ineffective. It has controlled and dominated prevention efforts for decades. Thousands of ineffective Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) programs have been perpetuating the idea that “abusers” choose their way into substance use disorder. No one chooses to internalize trauma, in the same way you cannot “just say no” to excitotoxicity, depression, anxiety or PTSD. We might as well be telling people to just say no to blushing or being embarrassed.

Since the days of William Duncan Silkworth’s groundbreaking research in medically assisted treatment and treatment of alcoholism, authoring “The Doctor’s Opinion” chapter in the Big Book of AA, we have known that SUD is a brain disease. Revolutionary for the 1930s, the DSM-1 and -2 finally caught up to Silkworth, listing alcoholism and addiction as a subcategory of neurosis: a mental health condition. Unfortunately, other neurosis in the late 1960s included “sexual deviancy” such as “homosexuality.”

Fortunately, scientists have since tirelessly researched and built upon the disease model, confirming the biological, psychological and sociological components of the mental health condition called SUD, or “The New Doctor’s Opinion.” Recommendations include treating people on the SUD spectrum with recovery-oriented and trauma-informed systems of care that focus on health, home, community and purpose.

World Health Organization studies show that addiction and alcoholism are still the No. 1 and No. 4 most stigmatized societal issues in 14 major countries. News channels and newspaper articles follow suit, full of fear-inducing stories of dangerous and violent crime and saturated with labels that shame people with hard nouns: Abusers. Addicts. Junkies. Alcoholics. Criminals. These terms speak directly to the core of our carnal fears. I dare you to write a quick list of your own connotations with those terms. Every time we use them, we evoke and provoke these fears.

The fear-eliciting labels not only spill into public policy but also into doctor’s offices. Research shows that “substance abusers” are referred to fewer services, receive a lower quality of care and are treated more punitively than “people with a substance use disorder.” Communities still stigmatize and attack people with SUD in the same way we stigmatized and discriminated against the LGBTQ population and people with AIDS. The public has been spoon-fed the negative externalities associated with SUD. “Bad character” still holds a high place as the root cause of someone’s problematic use.

Simply stated: Words are the vessels of ideas. Words surround and elevate ideas, holding and bridging them between the sea of the physical and metaphysical. Ideas shape and define our reality, as we each experience it. The words we use, write and hear literally shape our existence and manipulate our perception of that reality. When one steps back and analyzes the embedded ideas that words collect, deep associated connotations, stigmas and implicit biases become clear. Generations of prejudice and misunderstanding can be brought to bear with just one phrase or one word. Seemingly so trivial, words ferry us to remote memories in a flash, leave us bracing for impact or feeling completely discarded.

Let me be very clear: Ideas are the deadliest things on this earth, far deadlier than all the drugs, the wars and the pain. People, places and things can be destroyed. Our ideas live eternally. But not all is lost, ideas are also the most rejuvenating, re-engaging and restorative things on this earth. Recovery is possible, prevention is effective and treatment works.

So, I should probably finally introduce myself. My name is Andrew Kiezulas, and I am a person in long-term recovery. What that means for me, first and foremost, is Mom has her son back. To this day, just writing that brings tears to my eyes. Those simple words silhouette the profound emotions that conjure them. They reconnect me with inspiration, creativity and the power of possibility that rests within recovery. My entire world could be falling apart, the four-letter word that is “life” happening all around me, and that one idea pops into my head. “Maybe things aren’t perfect, but Mom has her son back, and I can build on that. I’ve been through some difficult situations and know how to ask for help. I can stay sober, and I can ask for help. What else can I do?!”

Photo by: Kyle Glenn

I am again a person and allowed to make mistakes while strengthened by my vulnerability and empowered by my recovery. I am a person in a long-term process called life. I learn and grow. I’m not my past, nor does the past bring me to the present. In fact, the present creates the past and is constantly rewriting it. I plug into inspiration and am inspired. I plug into hope and become hopeful. I plug into life and really begin living.

I’m not an “addict.” I’m a person in long-term recovery from SUD. I’m not “the depression, the PTSD, the anxiety.” I’m not “the common cold,” even if I currently have the common cold. I’m not an “abuser.” I was abused and am a survivor. My mother is not an ex-pregnant lady; she is my mother. My grandmother wasn’t “the cancer.” My uncle wasn’t “the AIDS.” My cousin isn’t “the suicide.”

We must stop and ask ourselves why we keep using terms that precede the lack of understanding in the DSM-1 by decades? Why do we keep ignoring the truth and chaining ourselves to the past? Are we going to continue doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result? Will we end up like Ollivier and at what cost?

Andrew Kiezulas is a 2018 chemistry baccalaureate candidate, minoring in mathematics and leadership and organizational studies, at the University of Southern Maine, where he is also the co-founder of and student recovery liaison for the Recovery Oriented Campus Center. Kiezulas is very active with policy and advocacy in the state of Maine, has testified numerous times during the past four legislative sessions and is passionate about influencing public opinion to reshape public policy.


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