You can’t say that, you’ll kill somebody.
The excoriation wasn’t quite that dramatic, but the sentiment left no doubt as to the perceived dangers inherent in the language of a recent column.
The offending words – junkie, drunk and addict – caused alarm in a warm bubble-bath handy the health system’s addictions closet; a soapy place somewhere nearer Oz than Kansas, where the righteous dare not permit the devil’s name.
The words are stigmatizing, the sympathetic harm-reductionists scolded the brute scribbler, and as such their proliferation in text deters people known amorphously as “substance users” from seeking equally amorphous help with the unknowable substance.
Clarity and honesty must be sacrificed on the higher alter of sensitivity, lest someone’s feelings are hurt on the way to their self-execution.
“. . . angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” wrote Allan Ginsberg of his friend Herbert Huncke and ilk.
Some other words in Ginsberg’s great poem were challenged, not for their stigmatizing insensitivity, but for their alleged obscenity. Howl is still studied in every modern poetry class worthy of a syllabus, so truth was victorious over the tightly-clinched butt cheeks of fearful puritanism.
But now, the stigmatizing words must be exorcised to bubble-wrap the boozer and the user for safekeeping, rather than slap him awake before the suicide is done.
Ginsberg, of course, said that Huncke was a junkie in just so many words, and not solely for the simple rhyme, but because it was true. You could seek confirmation from Herbert himself, so long as you caught him early, before 1996. After noon he was too stoned, and after ’96 too dead, to reply.
There is no mystery in Huncke’s survival of a half-century addiction. His morning’s work – stealing stuff – financed his vocation – junkie – and offered the side benefit of intermittent periods as a guest of the state. Those welcome interludes interrupted Huncke’s regimented injection schedule and thereby kept him alive about 25 years longer than anyone was willing to bet.
With variations, readers can visualize a “drunk.” There is little room for ambiguity with the harsher term “junkie,” and an addict is obviously someone with an addiction.
Nevertheless, “substance user” is to be substituted for all the above sources of stigma, or, so we are told, the user and abuser will stay out in the cold.
A substance is anything with physical form, so one who uses it could be up to just about anything. It’s lack of stigma is found in its missing meaning.
Healers, having failed utterly for too many dead generations to keep drunks sober or junkies clean, have taken on the language as the villain.
Good news can be found in the discovery that the substance user is never down and out, merely “street-involved,” which, we must be assured is dangerous, as the phrase is completely meaningless otherwise.
“Hi, my name is Bob, and I am a substance user.”
The introduction would raise an eyebrow or two at a meeting of the outfit that has saved more people from the hell of alcoholic death than all the efforts of all the health professionals on earth, but raised eyebrows would be the extent of the reaction.
Should the user remain, he would hear others like him use the language of the drunk, and nowadays as frequently that of the junkie. Honesty can be brutal, and so evokes brutal language, but without honesty recovery is someone else’s journey.
The point being, it’s not the words that are killing alcoholics and drug addicts, it’s the booze and drugs.
There is a stigma attached to an active alcoholic or other drug addict, no doubt about it, and the terms can be pejorative in their application. They are not pejorative here, merely real and known.
They are brutal terms used to describe a brutal condition. A hopeless state of mind and body. Having witnessed recovery up close and personal, words are only a barrier to recovery when they are chosen to blur or avoid the reality, to escape the truth of the fatal illness, that need not be fatal at all.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.