My former editor Buzz Trexler recently called my attention to changes the Associated Press made a couple of years ago to how journalists should refer to addicts and addiction.
For those of you who don’t traffic in journalism circles, you don’t have any reason to know what, exactly, AP Style is or is not. Suffice it to say that the AP Stylebook is the journalism Bible, with rules and guidelines that provide uniformity in newspaper reporting around the world. Example: how we abbreviate state names and when (following a city; spelled out on their own; no state reference necessary for major cities like Chicago, New York, etc.), or which particular references to street names should be abbreviated (“avenue,” “street” and “boulevard” are the abbreviated exceptions; all others — “road,” “lane,” “highway,” etc. — should be spelled out).
Most newspaper writers worth their salt learn AP Style either in school or during their first few months on the job, but the rules are always subject to revision, and unless you’re a dedicated AP Stylebook scholar, you tend to miss some of the latest changes. Like the one made in 2017, which determined that “addict” whould no longer be used as a noun. “Instead,” it says, “choose phrasing like he was addicted, people with heroin addiction or he used drugs.” In other words, differentiate the person from the disease.
I get it. While certain reactionaries are probably quick to attribute such a change to political correctness, the arbiters of AP Style are keenly aware of how much they drive the narrative surrounding certain issues. Although addiction and alcoholism are both considered legitimate illnesses — diseases, if you will — by the vast majority of medical professionals and scientists around the world, there is still a healthy segment of the population that insists those debilitations are choices.
Labeling them diseases, they feel, gives those afflicted a cop-out, allowing them to shift responsibility for their actions. Of course, that rationale demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the recovery process, which is all about accepting personal responsibility, making amends and instituting life changes to keep from returning to active addiction/alcoholism … but the debate continues. As with all things, you’re free to choose what you believe, but when you purposely choose to ignore the guidance of medical professionals because Becky down at Weigel’s convinced you all addicts choose to do the things they do … well, I could argue with that logic, but doing so wears me out, so have at it.
But I digress. And, as much as it feels like sacrilege, I’m going to disagree and even disregard that particular mandate AP Style. (Sorry, current boss.)
Hear me out. I completely understand and appreciate the responsibility the Associated Press feels it has for helping shape public discourse around things like addiction. According to a National Public Radio story on the changes back in 2017, “Widespread media misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of addiction has led to some deadly misconceptions about how it should be managed. The AP provides news to around 15,000 media organizations and businesses, and its stylebook is highly influential in setting standards for usage. If its more accurate terms are adopted and understood by institutions like The New York Times and CBS News, it could genuinely help improve drug treatment and policy by reducing stigma against lifesaving forms of treatment — amid an overdose crisis that shows no signs of slowing.”
But let’s not go overboard. I mean, are we making a change to how we refer to those who suffer from diabetes? Is “diabetic” something we’re going not going to use, because of our concern that we’re somehow contributing to a negative stigma of those who have the disease? In its quest to avoid using terms that denote pity or further stigma, as it did with terms referring to mental illness, is the Associated Press calling greater attention to the public misperceptions about addiction?
It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but I would think that those who deal with it every day might be good arbiters of how the term should be used. Case in point: At every recovery meeting I attend, I identify myself by my first name, and I label myself as an addict. So does everyone else at those meetings. We don’t do it to elicit pity or sympathy; we do it as a form of empowerment, to take responsibility for what’s wrong with us and to remind ourselves that we’re not “cured.”
That was a hard thing to do when I first got clean. To me, an addict was someone who lived under a bridge, ate out of garbage cans, begged for change on the sidewalk and smoked crack in back alleys. Because I was college-educated and managed, for most of my life, to hold down a decent and respectable job, I thought that exempted me from the technical definition of an addict.
Gradually, I came to understand that acceptance of my addiction, and labeling myself as one, was about surrendering to the concept that I’m a sick person, not a bad person; that I’m not responsible for my disease, but I am responsible for my recovery. It’s about surrendering those old ideas that were keeping me sick and no longer blaming other people or situations for my addiction.
In short, in the recovery world, “addict” is a term of empowerment. I’ll always be one, but today, I’m one in recovery, and if any distinction needs to be made for the purposes of AP Style, perhaps that should be it.