Why Not Addiction?
You may have noticed that words such as ‘addiction’ or ‘addict’ aren’t used here on our website. The reasoning behind this is multi-faceted. In order to provide a fully adequate explanation, we have to first explain our take on a commonly used model; identity theory, and how it relates to Integrative Harm Reduction. In addition, we should touch upon society’s relationship with these terms. This page is dedicated to that explanation.
The Stigma Society Holds Over Habitual Substance Use
What do you visualize when you hear the word ‘addict’? If you don’t personally know someone who is a habitual substance user, chances are that what you envision isn’t flattering.
Even if you do know someone who has struggled with substance use, the sad truth is that the taboo surrounding such behavior means we often let that single attribute of their personality overshadow everything else, even that person’s more positive and more defining factors.
This unappealing image is something that’s been ingrained in our society for generations, whether it’s through media, our peers, or our families. Even those that are closest to a habitual substance user might treat them harshly or take a disciplinary approach to their behavior – and it is often more out of fear or love than any sort of malice. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t hurtful when you are on the receiving end of such treatment.
The sad truth is that this way of looking at substance use is also usually present in the user themselves, which means that their self image takes a beating not only from others, but from within. A user might see themselves as dangerous, unpredictable or incurable, when the odds are they are in fact, consciously or subconsciously, coping with some underlying trauma(s) that need to be addressed.
Here at Heights Harm Reduction, we want to keep unique individuals from feeling that their habit (or habits) is the beginning and end of their personality. We treat people as people, and for the sake of those we work with, we don’t want any labels with harsh connotations getting in the way of that.
Habitual substance use isn’t something that has to work against one forever. We believe that long lasting positive change is possible.
Identity Theory And Integrative Harm Reduction
While each provider will have their own take on Integrative Harm Reduction (Dr. Kelli Wright included) certain names in the sphere have continued to be at the forefront of discussion when it comes to harm reduction style therapies.
Among these names is Dr. Andrew Tatarsky, who along with Dr. Scott H. Kellogg, authored a “Six Point Plan” for re-envisioning the way we see substance use. You can read the while document here. One of the points outlined has to do with something called “identity theory” and is crucial for understanding how a substance user might view themselves, how others might view them, and how we can use this information to facilitate positive change.
Without going overly into detail, let’s explore the broader ideas of identity theory and how using stigma charged terms like ‘addiction’ might work against an individual struggling with substance abuse.
Identity theory states that there are three core components of the identity. The first is self-definition. This means that the identity is largely made up by how one defines themselves.
Are they an athlete? A mother? A soldier? A single person may have several identities that they attach themselves to. An individual may also use these identities as metric to decide how well they are fulfilling those roles.
If one identifies and sees themselves as an addict, or someone who has an addiction, it can mean that they will begin to live up to that standard. They may begin using substances more than they would have, or feel a greater sense of shame, than if they had instead identified themselves as ‘someone who uses substances’, for an example.
When it comes to the average person’s idea of what these terms imply, ‘someone who uses substances’ or ‘a habitual substance user’ would probably have an easier time making positive change in their life than an ‘addict’ or ‘addicted drug user’ .
This change in terminology may seem trivial, but the difference in association can be profound. At HHR, we avoid encouraging the use of labels that can limit one’s view of themselves.
The second core component of the identity is social-oriented. Identities are often formed, refined, and transformed within a social context. Due to one’s self-defined identity, they might seek out and become involved in a certain social group that fits with that identity.
Or, as it is thought to be more common, a social group may actually give birth to an identity that the individual will define themselves as. Since the majority of individuals have more than one social group, they usually have several identities.
You might imagine what this implies: one’s relationship with others, and the nature thereof, can have a deep and fundamental impact on how that person views themselves. If one’s social circle is tells them that they are an addict, or that they have some incurable disease, then it is likely that the individual will adopt these same beliefs.
Considering this, not only can it be harmful for one to think of themselves as an addict, but it can be equally as harmful for others to see them as such. This is further amplified by what comes along with substance use related problems – stigma.
The third core component of the identity is action oriented. An individual may have a certain self-defined identity, and others may have caused or bolster that definition, but the action of that individual takes on a daily basis is also critical in the overall formation of their identity.
Typically when someone decides to get professional help, it is because they feel that their life is spiraling out of control. They are in too much pain to go on with their current way of living, or find it impossible to continue with their current self image. Their current pattern of behavior has lead to actions that have resulted in their unhappiness.
When someone seeks help for their substance use, it is actually a distinct action they have taken in order to change their identity for the better.