I read a blog today about a mother who’s son had died from a heroin overdose. Sadly, this is not an uncommon story to read on the internet. The story of a mother’s loss was compelling and sad. What stood out to me, was something very striking that would probably be missed by most who read the blog.
In telling the story of her son’s battle with heroin, she mentioned that her son would address himself as a “junkie.” The mother would always correct her son and tell him; “no, you are a ‘junkie’ in recovery.” I understand no mother wants to hear her son refer to himself as a ‘junkie.’ Why not tell him not to call himself a “junkie” at all. Of course, I don’t blame this mother whatsoever, she was doing what she thought was best.
People addressing themselves as a “junkie,” brought back some bad memories for me. When I was a Sober Living Home Manager, I had heard many clients refer to themselves as “junkies” and “pieces of sh*t.” At first, this didn’t bother me, as I considered it benign and silly. Once I had heard these self-deprecating names over and over again, I realized how damaging this can be.
One summer it got bad
I got a bunch of new clients in one summer, mostly opiate addicts, men, and women. When I had my first meeting alone with them, nearly all of these new clients referred to themselves as; ‘pieces of sh*t.’
I was VERY concerned as to why, nearly all seven of them, would address themselves this way.
I really didn’t say much to them at the first meeting. I wanted to wait for a week to find out more about this name association. I wanted to ponder it awhile and see how they interacted with others.
Well, I didn’t have to wait long. At the first house meeting we had, everyone takes turns saying their name and a little about how things are going for them. Two of the new people actually introduced themselves as; “their name,” followed by, “I am a piece of sh*t.” I was shocked, but I didn’t want to embarrass them in front of everyone, so I said nothing.
The next day, I pulled all the new people aside and told them, calling themselves derogatory names was not appropriate here at the house. Two of the young men spoke up and said; “We are pieces of sh*t.” I asked; “what makes you think this of yourselves?” This led to a big discussion about all the things they had done to their families and friends. I let them talk for a while as they interrupted each other trying to ‘one up’ each other’s story. Finally, I had enough of this, ‘self-pity party’ and told them to be quiet and think about what I had said.
I went for a walk and was trying to make sense of all that I had heard. Though it is true, addicts and alcoholics have done things they aren’t proud of, such as stealing and lying, but these things do not define them as a person. I decided to address this at the next house meeting.
Getting to the crux of this
We all gathered for the house meeting, and I told everyone to be quiet and listen to what I had to say:
“I have heard many people address themselves in very negative terms lately and this has got to stop. You can’t go through life calling yourselves a “junkie” or “a piece of sh*t.” These are derogatory terms that have severe negative connotations. How can we expect others to respect us again if we can’t respect ourselves? Think about how this looks to others. Personally, I think calling yourself names is a way to mitigate your behavior instead of taking responsibility for it.” The house went completely silent; all eyes were on me.
I could tell I had stuck a nerve with everyone by the way they were staring at me. I told them; you aren’t fooling anyone. Calling yourself bad names is just a way of saying; “I feel guilty for how I have behaved, but it’s not my fault.” No one said a word, they just kept staring or looked down.
I closed the meeting saying: “So, I don’t want to hear anyone call themselves names anymore. If you have something to say about your past behavior, we will be happy to listen, BUT, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO ABSOLVE YOURSELF FROM THAT BEHAVIOR BY CALLING YOURSELF NAMES!”
I finally got this habit of calling them, ‘junkie and piece of sh*t’ to stop. As soon as a new person came to the house and uttered those words, I would jump on it right away and put a stop to it. Sometimes I would hear other clients tell a new person; “don’t say that, we don’t talk like that here.”
How can we break the stigma of addiction when we are perpetuating stigmas ourselves? Never let an addict or alcoholic call themselves derogatory names. Remind them that how harmful that is to their self-esteem and to the recovery community.