Addict. Alcoholic. Drunk. Lush. Junkie. Offender. Criminal. Sober. Clean. Recovering Addict.
These are some words, labels and terms that are frequently tossed around in and out of the addiction and recovery community. They can be confusing. They can be derogatory. One simple word, turned into a label, can have the power to change your life and the way people see you. So what does it all mean, and what needs to change?
First, let’s address the power of labels in society. Society loves labels. Labels are a way of identifying, categorizing and filtering. As people, we often use labels to save us the trouble of digging any deeper. We run across many people in our lives, and we frequently use labels to help us determine who we should avoid, who is important, who we can be friends with, and who we should be afraid of. Labels are limiting and damaging.
When it comes to the disease of addiction, labels are thrown around pretty casually, and they can have a significant impact on how a person is viewed in society. Take the words “addict” and “alcoholic.” Within the addiction recovery and treatment world, these words aren’t negative. They are identifying terms that indicate someone has a problem, or had a problem. Outside of this community, the label “addict” can cause people a great deal of alarm. Alcoholic is generally not viewed quite as badly, but there is still a great deal of stigma in both those labels.
More derogatory labels include: Junkie, drunk, crackhead, tweaker, lush, etc. These are words that are used by many to describe people who are struggling with the disease of addiction. People who may die if they don’t get help, and people who are capable of recovering and leading full, satisfying and successful lives if they do get help.
These derogatory terms are used to criminalize and make a moral judgement against the people who are struggling with this powerful illness. It is no different than making a derogatory label for someone who is fighting cancer or diabetes, but people think nothing of throwing around a term like “junkie” for a person who is facing death each and every day.
Changing the language we use to label people who are addicted can help reduce stigma, shame and help in decriminalizing people who are sick and need help. A place to start this change would be in the treatment setting itself. Starting with changing the way that addicts talk about themselves early on would be key in revolutionizing the way that they view themselves. It should be stressed that instead of addict they have a problem with substance use. Residential treatment is an appropriate setting to start this change as an important part is education and information on the disease itself.
Even within the addiction and recovery community, labels can be confusing. You will hear the terms “addict” and “alcoholic” used interchangeably, and you will also hear “sober” “clean” and “clean and sober” used frequently. This is a common issue in twelve step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous keeps the focus on alcohol, although plenty of recovering alcoholics also struggled with drugs. Narcotics anonymous considers alcohol a drug, so regardless of what substance you struggled with, you are an addict, or a recovering addict. If you are an addict who is no longer using, you are considered “clean.” People of either fellowship who are working a program, are considered to be in recovery. You can see where all this terminology can create confusion.
There are times when disclosing that you are in recovery will happen. Unfortunately, when you identify yourself with the label recovering addict or alcoholic, you run the risk that people may only hear the second word. People often have the mistaken belief that being an addict or alcoholic means that you are somehow damaged beyond repair, and that people who have struggled with addiction can’t change or are bad people. This is a belief that must change, and the stigma of addiction must be removed. When this happens, these labels will cease to have the negative power that they currently still hold.
It is changing, albeit slowly. There was a time when addiction was simply not talked about. People didn’t admit that they had a problem to just anyone, and they didn’t talk about their recovery, either. High profile people kept their struggles under wraps as best they could. Being an addict or an alcoholic was shameful, and other than the inevitable gossip, it simply wasn’t addressed. This has changed. More and more people are “coming out” as being in recovery. People are sharing their stories, publicly. Awareness of addiction is increasing. There is still a long way to go. People still insist on holding on to derogatory labels and stereotypes, but education and awareness is starting to chip away at it.
Today not only do we see the public struggles that celebrities have with substances but it also becoming a hip thing to share that you are in recovery. Celebrities and their struggle with substance abuse is nothing new. In the year of 2015 there were tragic struggles with substance abuse and celebrity drug related death. More and more people are coming forward and talking about how they sought help and recovered. They are even starting to fight for increased awareness and acceptance, many of them coming forward publicly to speak about their own struggles.
Social movements are also contributing to changing labels. The movements of Young People in Recovery and I am Not Anonymous are both organizations that are advocating for change in the way that addicts talk about themselves and about each other. Labels are powerful and affect the way that we think about ourselves there is even a psychological term that refers to the power they have. Self Fulfilling Prophecy- is when a person unknowingly causes a prediction to come true, due to the simple fact that he or she expects it to come true. In other words, an expectation about a subject, such as a person or event, can affect our behavior towards that subject, which causes the expectation to be realized. This is important to remember how many things have you willed into your life because of distorted expectations of yourself? Personally this is a criticism I have of 12-step programs that they need to encourage the use of recovering addict or alcoholic not the terms alone. What we say and think about ourselves is so powerful! Please remember this the next time you want to call yourself an idiot or stupid.
As science learns more about the disease of addiction and educates the public about
what it is, people will begin to understand that it is an illness, not a moral or criminal issue. What is going to make the biggest impact is the continued efforts of people raising their voices and saying I am in Recovery I was an addict. People coming forward and breaking the silence showing that recovery is possible and does happen with treatment. The thing is we do not shame or silence people for having other chronic health problems, why should we continue to do this with addiction.
Whether you consider yourself a recovering addict or alcoholic, either way you are a miracle. If you are still struggling with the disease of addiction, know that recovery is possible.