Why Using Discriminatory Language to Say Only “Addicts” Can Help Themselves is Dangerous

Some say this is common knowledge, some even call it a fact.  “You can’t help a person who uses drugs who doesn’t want to help themselves” is one of the largest pieces of inspirational wisdom seen in abstinent-base circles online, in real life, and even in recovery programs themselves. Interventionists use this logic by the very nature of their job, but only in the most duplicitous way. It’s a victim-blaming mentality that offloads accountability away from ineffective and archaic treatment models, and on to individuals who use drugs.

There is a major problem with this logic. Do you remember the book 1984 by George Orwell which introduces the concept of doublethink? I will provide the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of doublethink, followed by a comment. This will be the basic structure of this entire article, interlaced with my own comments, opinions, and personal beliefs.

Definition: “The acceptance of, or mental capacity to accept contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time, especially as a result of political indoctrination… coined by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four”

Comment: This is exactly the concept used when you tell anyone to help themselves with anything. Telling someone with lived/living experience of “Sex, Drugs, & Harm Reduction” that only they can help themselves is a prime example of doublethinkHelp, here, is referring to a treatment program, usually rehab. Going to 12-step groups, getting counselling and engaging in treatment of all sorts is the platter being offered. That’s another doublethink which I’ll explain.

What does this imply? Go help yourself by getting help? The programming available here involves getting help from other people. So these people, who use drugs, are going to get help by helping themselves, by getting help from other people. This is a perfect doublethink.

Now here is the clincher if you’re not convinced. Here’s the Oxford Dictionary definition for “help”. Small adjustments have been made for formatting, but I have not obfuscated or altered the meaning of the word in any form or fashion.

Definition: 3rd person present: helps; past tense: helped; past participle: helped; gerund or present participle: helping.
Make it easier for (someone) to do something by offering one’s services or resources.
“They helped her with domestic chores”

Similar: Lend a hand to, lend a helping hand to, give assistance to, come to the aid of, aid and abet, be of service to, be of use to, be useful to, do someone a favour, do someone a service, do someone a good turn, bail/bale someone out, come to someone’s rescue, give someone a leg up.

Opposite: Hinder

Comment: So what do you think telling someone to help themselves is the opposite of? What a hindrance! Let’s continue the tirade. I know I’m having fun with this total defiance of the illogical.

Definition: Improve (a situation or problem); be of benefit to. “Upbeat comments about prospects helped confidence”

Similar: Relieve, soothe, ameliorate, alleviate, make better, ease, improve, assuage, palliate, lessen, mitigate, remedy, cure, heal, restore

Opposite: Worsen, aggravate

Comment: So now we are at the point where not only are we being a hindrance to “addicts” who just need to help themselves. Now, we are also worsening, or even aggravating the situation! We can still continue down the dictionary definition of help and see exactly how we are doing this.

Definition: Serve someone with (food or drink).
“She helped herself to a cookie”

Comment: Ah, so you can help yourself! Let’s see what this actually means!

Definition: Take something without permission.
“Just help yourself if you need anything”

Comment: That sounds like a pretty nice statement. Sometimes it is, because you are also helping that person by taking your guard off whatever the “anything” you’re implying is. What does it actually imply when someone just helps themselves though? See, here, you’re actually following a classic rhetoric called “tough love”.

Tough love demands you remove the “addict” from your life and force them to help themselves. With the consolation of a doublethink statement that you are just “loving them from a distance”. When you flat out reject someone like this, you may feel fantastic about your “help”. But you shouldn’t! Now they are to, according to this belief, justly (definition: what is morally right or fair) help themselves. This is not actually just. You are now telling someone to do as follows,

Similar: Steal, take, appropriate, take possession of pocket, purloin, commandeer, make free with, use without asking, swipe, nab, filch, snaffle, liberate (set [someone] free from a situation).

Comment: I’ve included a few definitions from the Oxford Dictionary in brackets for the words which could be used to split hairs on my dictation of the word “help”.

When you are asking an “addict” to help themselves, what are you implying? This is all I’ve ever seen.

You blame the drug user in order to liberate yourself from having to deal with them. You have judged that person for their glom. This is their addiction to drugs (which you most likely know next to nothing about – neither addiction nor drugs) and you have glommed them from any rational, evidence based solution.

Definition: Cannot or could not avoid.
“He could not help laughing”

Comment: I know I can’t! That’s pure cynicism for a mentality which has hurt me many times though. This isn’t actually funny. At all.

I felt like a failure for years following this mindset, and it was further exacerbated by the abstinence-only programming I attended.

I know from personal experience that most people suffering an addiction will not succeed under these conditions. What defines success needs a serious revision. Harm reduction is key to changing the world of addictions and recovery, for the better.

Not everyone knows these definitions for the word help, I understand that. This is quite literally what happens though. When the method used to “help” a person using drugs, “Only you can do it” this is exactly what happens. The dead cannot recover, nor can they receive help. It’s time for us to do away with tired old rhetoric and ineffective mantras.

How much more do you want to psychologically impair someone in recovery from an addiction?

Alex McVean

Alex McVean is a harm reduction and drug policy activist with living experience from Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. He is Social Media and Communications Manager for Bluelight.org and a member of The Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD).

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