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Don't Call My Dad the "A" Word: Language matters for people seeking help in the battle against addiction

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Article originally published in The Washington Times

By Jessica Hulsey Nickel with contribution from Robert Weiner

(Jessica Hulsey Nickel's father, the title subject of the piece written by Hulsey Nickel, died with a heroin substance-use disorder.)

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September is National Recovery Month. We are facing an epidemic in America. Over 50,000 people a year die from drug overdoses, 144 a day. President Trump recently declared it an "emergency."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that over 33,000 persons last year died from opioid overdoses. Opioid overdoses -- not just heroin, but prescription pain medicine, fentanyl and carfentanil sold and used illegally or legally -- have quadrupled the last two decades. Drug overdose deaths are now more than from car crashes, equal to 17 times the deaths on 9/11.

Growing up, I heard many people call my dad the "A" word--an addict. In reality, he was a brilliant man and the father of two girls. He played guitar, could fix anything that ran on electricity, and had a debilitating medical condition called a substance-use disorder -- a heroin addiction. He died much too young at the age of 48.

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When addiction hits your family, it's like being hit head-on by a Mack truck. It's sleepless nights filled with worry, it's desperate googling, it's dead-end streets, it's isolation. And for those that have lost someone--a son, a daughter, a mom, a dad--it's unimaginable pain. But unlike the support that erupts when other medical issues hit our neighbors--say cancer or Alzheimer's--where are the offers for help, the casserole dishes, the warm cookies, "thinking of you" cards and potluck fundraisers?

Our own biases and foul language contribute to this isolation. When words are used inappropriately to describe individuals with a substance-use disorder, it not only negatively skews cultural perceptions of their disease, but also feeds into the stigma that can stop people from seeking help, can stop people from going next door with that casserole dish. Using "addict" to describe someone struggling with a substance use disorder ignores the science and discredits the individual.

Much of the terminology used to describe addiction is disparaging--suggesting that addiction is a result of moral/personal failings, or that individuals choose to be addicted, or suffer a lack of willpower. As we know, addiction is a medical issue, and can be compounded by patient behavior just like many other illnesses, from type-two diabetes to heart disease and lung cancer.

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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5), released in 2013, replaced the categories of substance "abuse" and "dependence" with a single classification of "substance use disorder." We need to align our dinner-table terms with the science--the doctors.

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Robert Weiner, NATIONAL PUBLIC AFFAIRS AND ISSUES STRATEGIST Bob Weiner, a national issues and public affairs strategist, has been spokesman for and directed the public affairs offices of White House Drug Czar and Four Star General Barry (more...)

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