Hurtful Words

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Many of us remember that saying repeated often throughout our childhood. As we matured we began to realize that though no bones were fractured by the spoken word, we have all known instances of words being used to defame, denigrate and label others. Some words have developed such a history of hate and stigma (for example; the “N” Word) that most of our society has greed that they are no longer to be uttered. Many of the words used to label others in a negative and hateful manner relate to a person’s nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. This is certainly an incomplete list, but you get the point. 

There are many other instances where words once considered without prejudice have come to be recognized as stigmatizing and demoralizing. As society has matured we have come to realize that words used to label individuals have frequently identified these persons according to a narrow perspective of their experience. We use labels such as schizophrenic, retarded, crippled, and diabetic, to identify people according to a single, often problematic aspect of their lives. This has come to be seen as stigmatizing and reduces individual identities to an incomplete picture of their full personalities and potential. Many of these words conjure up an image of an individual who is “different from us” and often create distance. People often use labels for others to make ourselves feel better or more socially acceptable than “those others.” Sometimes these labels provide a false sense of security by creating distance and assuring ourselves that we “are not like them.”  Conversely, using “person centered terminology” means identifying an individual first as a whole person, comprised of much more that a single aspect of their experience. We should now say “a person with schizophrenia” rather than calling them a “schizophrenic.” This allows for respect that they are much more than their illness. 

Many words related to addiction carry negative connotations. Calling someone a junkie, loser, scumbag, or an addict conjures up stereotypical and inaccurate ideas about that individual’s character. The person being referred to often internalizes negative beliefs about themselves which contributes to and reinforces their poor self esteem. For people in active addiction, who often struggle with self loathing, self blame, and shame, their self worth is further diminished by other’s attitudes and prejudices.  Referring to those individuals using “person centered terminology” such as a “person with substance use disorder”, demonstrates respect and understanding that that person is so much more than their addiction. This term also recognizes the long understood evidence that addiction is a medical and psychiatric illness and not a character or moral defect. 

Another word that is often used to blame and shame others is “enabler.” This concept is much misunderstood and often used in a pejorative manner to blame some for contributing to another person’s addictive behavior. Certainly, family members who continue to deny their loved one’s substance use disorder, are covertly supporting that individual’s refusal to see their behaviors as problematic and unhealthy. This becomes a barrier to getting help for those afflicted with the disease of addiction. 

However, when people are referred to as enablers, this is a way to lay blame on them as if they were “supporting” and “encouraging’ their loved one’s harmful behaviors. This results in family and loved ones becoming victims of stigmatization. Parents, especially, feel inadequate  in not protecting their children from harmful conditions. Such derogatory terms serve only to further isolation and self blame for individuals with substance use disorder in the family. Families are doing the best they can to help their loved one stay alive as long as possible so that recovery may become an option. This means sometimes allowing them to stay in the family home when other’s would throw them out. The philosophy called “Tough Love” would support putting someone out of the house without any assistance. This belief supposes that letting someone in addiction suffer the worst kind of consequences will only serve to motivate the person into treatment. This may or may not be the case. 

I know a family whose daughter was staying in a downtrodden neighborhood of a major city and was prostituting herself for heroin. Her parents would at times pick her up and bring her home for a hot meal and clean bed for the night. They would bring her back to the city the next day, knowing that she would go on her own, but driving her was safer. Some would judge the parents as enablers and say they were supporting their daughter’s dangerous behavior. The parents lived in hope that one of these days their daughter would prefer to stay home and kept the invitation open. This approach is considered “Harm Reduction.”  The idea is that helping someone reduce the harm in their behavior keeps them alive and safer until they are ready to get treatment. Calling the parents “enablers” as a pejorative term is inappropriate and hurtful for families that act in desperation to help keep their loved ones alive.

The words we use to refer to others can, and often do, have hurtful and stigmatizing effects. When we practice using words with less stereotypical judgmental  and blame, we show tolerance  and understanding for those that are suffering. This will result in increased support and compassion for others when they need it the most.

5 thoughts on “Hurtful Words

  1. Thank you. I wish more people would read this. Thank you so much. I lost my beautiful daughter 26 forever. 2/14/2017

  2. Yes. I wish more people would read this. Being called a enabler was far from what my input was, and meant to be. When dealing with a loved ones mental illness and addiction, some days it’s a guess at which one you are dealing with. We all do the best we can. There is always hope! Help is what we needed. My son forever 22. 12-15-16 💔

  3. Interesting, the Word enabler, My Daughter Holly died of an over dose opioid 9 years ago.She had a work place injury that I was told about she showed me her mri. She was married, trying to get a divorce, a young son just turned 7.
    She had one OD her husband called us to take care of their son.. he also was addicted.. The Details where related to us by our daughter.
    That as — a young man in late teens he and his siblings where taking Prescription pad from his father Dr…
    Later found out others in his family had history of addiction.
    But back to our Holly, she never stopped working , we went to her Insurance comp ( her Dad and I ) to get Help..Knowledge To Help her and her family.Especial the child.His Safety.
    Everyone thinks of the addict == but the children are left out unless they have a grandparent like me who tried to get medical , psychiatric help for her.. we even hired a intervention person..not really useful.
    But when she died..partly due to her desire to stop by herself..bad idea.She was Not – knowledgeable of the danger of stopping and restarting.( not an Experienced Drug user like her husband.)
    It was horrible, I found her Warm ,Started— Called 911 —I started cpr.. But they never gave her Narcan..don’t know if they had it..Basics — did EKG..no HR..but did not try to rescue her.I will never know..will I…
    Her son was waiting in my car, I had to go out and tell him mommy had died before they brought her body out.
    He husband came To the house shortly after, I don’t know if he called..
    He was waiting for my daughter to pick up our grandson, they where legally separated at the time.He had called me to get our grandson…When he called..
    He said maybe something is wrong….I didn’t think anything of it 🤔as I drove up to her home…but my body mind..told me Yes! something was not right.
    Sorry Im jumping around telling this story.
    🧐My son in law said we enabled them.. I never personally felt that we had!
    We did our best with what we knew.. what both of these people allowed us to know.
    In our grieve of the moment I asked the father if he would get grieve therapy for this child, he tearfully Agree.
    We tried to get custody of our grandson,the other grandfather.paid his son Attorney. Father got Custody – 100,000 $ life insurance from her employer I BM( She Made 130,00$ the last year she was alive!)
    The father 2 months later they still had not gotten therapy for the little boy..Both my husband and I did..for 5 yrs for myself.

    I called the other grandfather, and asked if her would talk to his son, help him find a child therapist, since he was a Dr..he said he couldn’t talk to me because we were suing his 45 yr old son!
    I never talked with this man again. You would think an innocent 7 year old grandson was important!
    Apparently he did talk to his son and grandson got therapy that My Husband and I paid for 4-5 years.. Until he told us he didn’t want child to continue.🤔We dis all The driving… he Required it 🧐.but a year later our grandson was acting’ out he was in distress ,on a camping trip we took him on.
    He is 16 now, we see him regularly, We always confirm that it’s his choice to visit.As his father , was using us as babysitters..for his convenience, not the child’s best interest.Once when I got To their Home to pick child up. The child got very upset as he did not know he was going…. being separated from his father become very upsetting for him ..After he Re- bonded with his father..after mother died. I Respected My Grandson emotional needs 💕
    While the parents where separated father ..he could only have supervised visitation.No one in his family would do this.. He ask me to.. I’m a very kind person.. I did this for the father and the boy and his mother.
    Our grandson is doing well in School he always gets positive comments from his teachers on his Report Card..it’s emailed to his father.
    Many times he doesn’t know how our wonderful bright grandson has done in school… He doesn’t tell our grandson what his actual Report Card said.
    Later our grandson got passcode so he could see his Report Card Himself and Share it with us on computer.Grandpa rewards with $ As and Bs.. This child made the honor roll most of the time.. his father doesn’t bother to know or tell the boy!
    I think this is abusing my grandson emotionally, not being interested, or showing pride.
    But I rarely say much.
    Now he is 16.. I think he knows who really cares for his wellbeing.His future .
    That’s my story of enabling!😢

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