Person First—Please

written by Merlyn Karst, Recovery Ambassador




In my previous blog, I wrote about the wonder of words. I will expand that to language. William C., Moyers, long-time friend and author, is vice president of public affairs and community relations for Hazelden Betty Ford. He conducted a podcast interview with Dr. Stephen Delisi, Medical Director of Professional Education Solutions. The theme was, Person First Language Reduces Stigma. I am providing some of Dr Delisi’s remarks. He says, “It's not something that people have always heard about. It is just as it sounds. It is language that is intentionally putting the person as a human being first as their identity before any deficit or illness that they might have. We still often will refer to people as an addict, an alcoholic, or a substance abuser. If you listen, that is not person-first. That is defining the identity of the individual by the disease that they have. It makes a big difference because non-person first blames the individual for their behaviors and implies that they are willfully choosing those behaviors rather than see them as a person first and the behaviors as a symptom of an illness with which they are suffering. Support meetings have other considerations. That is the individual choosing to use the language that is socially normed to that subculture. In those meetings, the use of that language does not have the same connotations and bias and stigmatization.”

He speaks of research, “that we can draw upon to understand how important this is that the most cited reason why an individual suffering from a substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health is the number one reason they cite for not seeking treatment or leaving treatment is the experience of bias, stigma, and the internalized stigma of shame. The very people we wanna treat—they're not gonna come into treatment because of the language that we used.” He said, “It isn't just words, William. Language has the power to either hurt or to promote hope and healing, and we need to be in the business of educating towards the use of words that promote hope and healing for those who are suffering from these illnesses.”

I am a supporter of medically assisted recovery. Dr Delisi points out, “people with opioid use disorder and the recovery community, often sees that people on methadone or the buprenorphine have simply substituted one drug for another. We can change that by referring to these medications as what are. They are medications for the treatment of opioid use disorder.” We need to educate about the purpose and benefits of these medications that assist in the process of recovery.

Particularly during the Pandemic, I have traveled a lot and never left my recliner. Rick Steves Travels in Europe have taken me to many places. I have seen peaks, valleys, streets, and alleys. I’ve been in more cathedrals than I can count. And through it all, Steves always talks about the people, families, and relationships. The language may be different but there is understanding. In the context of this writing, he puts persons first. Huell Howser is a California legend and is now gone. Under the banner of California’s Gold, his archives provide visits to wonders of California that I never knew existed. During his visits, he points out saying, “Look at this!”. The amazing discoveries of the moment are always shared by and with the people involved, including the random visitors that include children. He closes with pictures with the people he has met and talks about what they have contributed with their stories of history and their own lived experience. Both Steves and Howser used and recommended tour guides when on their journeys to places they had not visited. Different languages, different cultures, different food. It is all very personal and amazing when he puts persons first.

Incidentally, I also watch cooking shows and they originate from different places. Wonderful, appetizing, though sometimes strange, and prepared by chefs with recipes and knowledge. I don’t gain a pound. Seems little difference between a Chief and a Chef. Both have skills and recipes for success. Persons early in their recovery journey may feel they are visiting foreign territory. The Purpose of Recovery recently conducted a lunch and learn event on Peer Coaching Overview. In simple terms, coaching is unlocking a person’s potential for personal growth. A Peer Recovery coach is active and has a year or more of sustained recovery. The coach works collaboratively with peers to help them achieve goals, solve problems, learn, and develop a full life in recovery. One of the features of the presentation was an assessment of one’s recovery capital. I look at this as capitalism with a social focus. They responded to a series of 50 statements. Response to this exercise had two results. Many attendees were pleased and surprised at how much recovery capitol they had and two, recognized the opportunity and benefit of accumulating more. More can be learned by visiting TPOR.org.

The Recovery journey is difficult and rewarding and is best served through guidance. I call it G.P.S.—Guided Peer Support. Did you know the Three Wise Men used GPS to lead them to their destination—God Provided Star. As Rick Steves says, “Keep on Traveling.” Merlyn Karst, Recovery Ambassador


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