Language and Stigma

By Tim Shewcraft, 2019

Does language have effect because it is powerful or, rather, is language powerful because it has effect? While these questions may differ only slightly, the implications of their answers could not be more dissimilar. To affirm the former would be to say that language has power from the moment that it leaves the mouth of the speaker; whereas, an affirmation of the latter would imply that language derives its power only upon entering the ear of the one spoken to. Now, imagine that after much debate consisting of a lot of big words and confusing loops of logic, we’ve arrived at the anticlimactic conclusion that the answer to both questions is ‘yes.’

Hi, my name is Tim and I am a person in recovery from Substance Use Disorder (SUD), multiple diagnoses within the arena of mental health, as well as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

ASD is an intensely isolating disorder. As my challenges lie within the social and emotion range of the spectrum, I possess the uncanny ability to find my foot placed firmly inside my mouth yet continue to speak until I find that my other foot, jealous of the first, has itself been ingested too. Following close behind is a wave of anxiety accompanied by an overwhelming sensation throughout my body to run without looking back.

When I received officially my diagnosis at age 28, when my recovery from SUD began, I had become so familiar with this experience that giving it a name had become superfluous. Bill Shakespeare was on to something, I told myself, when he mused, “what’s in a name?” The implications of this name, as with the smell of the rose; however, had a power that gripped tightly my very essence. ASD, as they say, is a lifelong disorder with no ‘recovery.’ At best we may “hope to minimize the occurrence of the symptoms, thus permitting us to enjoy as normal a life as possible,” as my diagnosing doctor delicately informed me. For some time I was devastated by this lack of a promise for recovery. It wasn’t until I became comfortable enough to define, for myself, recovery that I realized how little I cared to “enjoy as normal a life as possible.”

The negativity that is faced during the hell of early recovery is just as poisonous as the drug. Researchers at the University of Toronto, in 2006, conducted a study which explored the effects of stigma and being stigmatized. The study not only showed a direct correlation between stigma sensitivity and self-regulation, but provided causal evidence for stigma’s ability to decrease self-control in populations which face prejudice. 

As the mental process of exerting self-control requires conscious effort, it is a resource that is not sustainable indefinitely. Just as rest is required with any physical activity by which our bodies expend energy, our capacity to exhibit self-control must be replenished. Because regulatory pressures are the direct result of becoming aware of one’s stigmatized status, then, the capacity of stigmatized populations to employ self-control is repeatedly depleted.

Undeniably, the face of this opioid epidemic is one of suffering, fear, death, and a slew of additional adjectives that elicit negative thoughts and emotions, thus perpetuating the stigma associated with SUD. For our fellows still suffering within the grasp of their active use it is our duty, our responsibility to protect. After all, we too once felt as if we were small and alone. In order to successfully address this stigma we must become the face of SUD. Wearing recovery as the badge of honor that it is may change this conversation into one of hope, rather than one of despair. 

Those of us in recovery from SUD are all too familiar with hopelessness. Many of us have stood at the very doorstep of death. Others have knocked on that door. Some have even stared into the eyes of death. All of us have walked away, triumphantly. Unfathomable is the height of the horse that one must sit upon in order to look or to talk down at us, as we are giants.

Certainly I will always be able to make more amends, but thankfully I can say that I have forgiven myself. I am unapologetic with myself for the years that I spent in my active use. Why wouldn’t I be? My entire life prior to recovery, both before and during my use, was entrenched in depression and self-hate. I can finally say that I love myself. This word, recovery, is one that fills the mind and the heart with hope. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like power.

Nothing about us without us.

First published in The Recovery Advocate, Vol. 4, May, 2019