When we see or hear that someone is addicted or has a disease, bingo! We label the person: loony, nuts, crazy, addict, junkie, bum, lush, crack head – it’s a long list. 

As soon as we label someone, we are identifying them as the other – someone not like us. And from the beginning of time, we have feared (and often killed) the other. When someone is labelled in this negative way, they are dehumanized. They are stigmatized. They are outcasts.

Labels hurt. Their purpose is to create a distance between the speaker (or writer) and the afflicted individual. Labels make the person invisible–and that hurts. When we hear the label, or use the label, we are only aware of the disease or affliction, not the vulnerable person in front of us. This isn’t an intentional response – it’s one way people all over the world act to protect themselves from the “other.” 

There are some things we can do to fight stigma. First is to intentionally use language that does not label. Instead of “she’s an addict,” say “Sally’s an addicted person.” This feels weird, but after many repetitions, it becomes more natural.

The difference between these two ways of speaking is huge. In the first version, the person is replaced by the label, so the disease is all you see. In the second version, you’re seeing a person, and giving a description of the problem. This works because nouns outrank adjectives. The noun – addict – stands by itself. It’s a thing. In the better form, “addicted” is an adjective, and is less important than the noun “person.” What kind of person is Sally? An addicted person.

We live in a culture that loves “shorthand” speech and writing. This is one case in which taking the shortest route really hurts because it is dehumanizing.

For two years I have been creating museum-quality portraits of addicted persons. A number of the portrait volunteers had mental health issues as well as substance abuse problems. Their portraits are accompanied by one-page life stories. When shown in a gallery, the effect is amazing. Viewers look at the pictures first and start wondering about the story – which, conveniently, is right next to the portrait. Typically, viewers turn to the story and read the whole thing, and then move on to another portrait. They leave knowing that addicted persons can be just like us because they are “us.” The affliction has been separated from the person.

This happens because the portraits are not horror shots. They capture the character of the individual, and that opens the door to curiosity – what’s Amanda’s story?

And right there, we have given the person back their dignity and opened the possibility of compassion in the viewer/reader. At this point, several thousand people have seen at least some of this collection. And 95% of them or more have come away opened to the individuals they have just met. No more stigma. Just painful, horrible problems that we now want to help, not dismiss.

In a nutshell: to fight stigma, see the face, not the affliction. And learn to speak without labels. It takes practice but it can be done. 

The entire collection of portraits and stories is in the “Faces of Addiction” companion book, available here: http://facesofaddiction.net/our-book

Written by Eric K. Hatch, Ph.D.