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Blog Post: A Letter to Webster's Dictionary

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

By Jessica Hulsey Nickel

At a meeting recently I was describing my work with amazing families across the country who have been impacted by addiction, when the man next to me commented that I had used bad grammar in that description.

And he was right. I did use bad grammar. Impact is a verb that describes colliding or being hit; not being affected by something. And I was an English major, I take grammar and all things related to the English language very seriously.

But I'm using bad grammar on purpose. Affected is not nearly strong enough a word. A British poet once wrote “a drop of ink may make a million think”. We need a word that articulates the anguish of addiction to help others better understand the importance of this issue.

So today I’m addressing this note to the fine people at Webster's Dictionary and ask that they fire up their pens and create a new version of the word impact.

To merely say that our families have been affected by addiction is an understatement akin to saying the titanic had a small leak or Tom Brady plays a little football.

We are in the middle of a serious opioid epidemic in this country. Today alone we will lose 144 people to a drug overdose. That's like losing two sold out 747 airplanes every week in this country for an entire year. And for those of us with addiction in our families it really does feel like you have been hit by a freight train when someone you love has a substance use disorder.

The Addiction Policy Forum has created a program just for families impacted by addiction. Brave, courageous families who are using their most difficult moments to help their communities and fight this devastating disease every day. Over 400 families will be in Washington DC next week for CARA Family Day, “using our words” on Capitol Hill and with key policymakers, reminding them of the real people and communities at the epicenter of this epidemic.

Our families can tell you what it’s like to live this life.

It's sleepless nights filled with worry, it's crisis for everyone, it’s frantic googling for someone, anyone to help, hoping the phone rings, or, in the scariest of circumstances, hoping it doesn't. It’s drowning every day in a sea of worry and fear. And for those that have lost someone -- a son, a daughter, a mom, a dad -- impact is still too soft of a word to describe the devastation.

Words are important. They spur action, they elicit emotion, they can move nations and change the course of world history. The problem isn’t poor grammar; the problem is that there are no words to adequately capture the pain caused by addiction, or the sheer joy of watching a loved one in recovery.

So, Webster’s, with this new word, please try to capture the feelings of those impacted by addiction in order to honor the more than 50,000 families every year who lose a loved to drug overdose, or to the 26 million families who are actively struggling with the disease of addiction.

Find the word that moves a people to recognize the severity of this issue. Find the word that rallies millions to our efforts to combat this disease.

You have your charge Webster’s…make us think!

Jessica began working in prevention at 15 years old through an anti-drug coalition in southern California. The next chapters included an appointment by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Drug-Free Communities Commission, serving as a legislative aid in the U.S. House of Representatives, and work to pass and fund the Second Chance Act to help individuals returning home from prison and jail. In 2015, Jessica founded the Addiction Policy Forum to help families and patients struggling with the disease of addiction. Frustrated by the lack of progress in improving outcomes for those individuals and families struggling, she started the nonprofit with $13,000 from her own savings account and long hours at the dining room table. Read more about Jessica Hulsey Nickel.

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