Words can bring us together. They shape the way we think and how we perceive the world.
Words are also transformational. They can bind us with their enduring power to change the course of our lives.
You have cancer.
You're an addict.
The last word, in particular, has forever changed the trajectory of my life.
I was 16 years old when someone first called me that, and I immediately rejected this label because of the imagery associated with it. Now, 15 years later, I understand why I visualized what I did as a teenager being called that word -- brown bags, needles, dirty and criminal -- I was programmed to visualize those things. I was programmed to de-humanize people using that word.
Even before I became addicted to alcohol and other drugs as a teenager, I watched, read and listened to the media's portrayal of people struggling with addiction. It was always the same story. The addiction-riddled daily police blotter, the news reports of endless strings of celebrity crash-and-burns and "reality" shows depicting the worst-case effects of substance use. Rarely was there a story about a person's humanity, complex childhood, family genetics, age of first use, or least frequently of all: a story about the more than 23 million Americans living in recovery.
At 16, the only time I heard that word was in reference to people using drugs with no ability to stop. I had no idea there were just as many people recovering from addiction as were currently struggling. And the first time I was called it, I instinctually rejected it. Not because I was in denial about my problem with alcohol and other drugs. But because I thought of myself as a person -- a human, and I was programmed that those people were less than people like me.
That is the power of language. It can create a perceptual underclass of nearly 20 percent of American adults (22 million suffering and 23 million others in recovery) just by using a single label. It's no surprise a significant portion of those in need of help don't reach out for it. Yes, addiction is complicated. But we complicate it more by talking about it in the wrong way. Instead of shaming an entire population, we ought to help end the silence that forces so many to not seek help.
Our country will continue to struggle with the right touch to address our addiction crisis until we can change the conversation. We incarcerate thousands of individuals -- more than half of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses -- who are in need of help and support, not a jail cell. We lose hundreds of lives each and every day from this health problem -- more than car accidents. Yet the dialogue around addiction rarely speaks to the core issue. How do we have a conversation about it? How do we talk about the elephant in the room without finger pointing?
Simple. Stop calling me a label. Start calling me a person. When I was 16 I was a person struggling with addiction. Today, I am a person in long-term recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs for more than 14 years. That doesn't just sound a bit different -- it feels different.
Imagine the monumental shift our society could make if we changed how we talk. We would stop blaming and shaming, and turn our collective focus to helping people who need recovery -- find it!
That's why on October 4, we're ending the silence and bringing this message to the National Mall at the UNITE to Face Addiction Rally. Together, with the help of friends Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, Joe Walsh, The Fray, Jason Isbell and John Rzeznik, we will use this platform to spread a new message of empowerment and person-first language across the country and to our leaders in Washington. United with common cause and purpose, we will transform the national discourse.
It's time we all bring the addiction conversation to the great mall in Washington and stop all the unnecessary and unproductive labels. After all, we're in this together.
Greg Williams is the Campaign Director for UNITE to Face Addiction -- a grassroots advocacy effort organizing people, communities, and organizations to face addiction and stand up for recovery. He has been in long-term recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs since age seventeen. He is the director of the feature-length documentary "The Anonymous People," and has a Master's degree in addiction public policy from New York University.
This post is part of a series produced by facingaddiction.org, in conjunction with their event Unite to Face Addiction (Sunday, Oct. 4, National Mall, Washington, D.C.). The blogs are also part of The Huffington Post's "What's Working" solutions-oriented journalism initiative. For more information on facing addition, visit www.facingaddiction.org.
The UNITE to Face Addiction Rally will begin live streaming on Sunday October 4, 2015 at 4pm EDT on Huffington Post.