Recovery and the Words We Use

Language is powerful and words have meaning. The labels that we apply to people can build them up or tear them down.

Many of the hurtful words that have been applied to addiction have been around, and in regular use, for so long that we may use them out of habit, and without giving much thought to the message they send.

Addicted and recovering people have been the object of language created by others for centuries, and much of this language has proven to be detrimental to recovery.

The goal, after all, is to encourage people who are addicted to begin the path to recovery and to help them to recover. With this in mind, we should use language that fosters a culture of recovery.

In the eyes of those who don't understand, once a person is known to be struggling with addiction, they are reduced to a label that stigmatizes. Everything that they might have accomplished, or will accomplish, is forgotten, and they are labeled as an alcoholic or as an addict, and some consider these to be the kinder words.

Words can and do hurt, but they can also help to bring about healing. While the wrong words can bring feelings of shame, guilt, unworthiness, and hopelessness, the right ones can foster hope, promise, healing, and recovery.

We might be aware that someone has diabetes or heart disease, but we don't typically label them by their disease. Yet, it's not at all unusual for people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs to be referred to as alcoholics or addicts.

While it is true that we all know people in recovery who refer to themselves by these terms, and may consider it to be an asset to their recovery that they never forget that they are addicted.
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There may be some truth to this, as it has been a significant tenet of most 12-step programs for many years, but there's a difference between applying a label to yourself and having it applied to you by someone else.

Then again, it is also true that people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol commonly feel guilt, shame, self-hatred, and the need to beat up on themselves.

Employing the disease concept to addiction is a way to stop the self-hate and to reduce the impact of these negative emotions.

Rather than labeling people struggling with addiction as alcoholics and addicts, we can recognize them as people with a chronic disease. When we erase the stigma, we encourage them to seek and to find recovery.

We should not be defined by the disease that we most want to recovery from.

The right language can also have a positive effect on the way that lawmakers, and people in general, view the disease of addiction. Words matter, and the right ones can increase the overall understanding of addiction and recovery. When we do this, we make recovery attractive and attainable.

Let's look at some of the other words and phrases that are commonly used to describe addiction and recovery, and consider where they inevitably lead.

The term "substance abuse" refers to actions that are intentional and harmful to others. People who abuse are known as abusers, and abusers deserve punishment, not treatment. There is no other medical condition to which the term "abuse" is applied. Instead, we could use "substance addiction," "alcohol and drug-related problems," or "substance use disorder."

We might say that someone who is no longer using is "clean." However, since "clean" is the opposite of "dirty," the use of the word perpetuates the concept of shame, as applied to addiction. Better choices might be "drug-free" or "free from illicit and non-prescribed medication."

Even such commonly used terms as "relapse" could be problematic, as it refers to a lapse in judgment. Some experts in the field of recovery suggest the use of "reoccurrence" or "return to use" instead. "Recovery management" or "recovery enhancement" could replace "relapse prevention" in our vocabulary.

Yes, I know. Some of these seem a bit like nitpicking. Language does matter, but this might also depend on the setting that we're in. Terms that might be appropriate in mutual aid meetings, such as AA or NA, could be less appropriate when we're communicating with the public or with people who are not yet in recovery.

Many people with substance use disorder don't seek treatment because they fear they will be stigmatized by friends, family members, employers, or neighbors.

An immediate revamping of our vocabulary isn't required, but we should give some thought to the possible impact of the words that we use, with particular attention given to those that are clearly stigmatizing.

The language that we use can increase stigma, acting as a barrier to accessing care. The wrong terms can negatively influence the care that is received, influencing recovery outcomes. The words we use can also have a detrimental impact on the attitudes that others have toward people in recovery, as well as those who are in need of recovery.

The words we use reflect our attitudes, or they may be perceived as such. Words have immense power to hurt or to heal.

The wrong words can bring shame, conveying the message that people are unworthy of recovery or not capable of recovering. They fuel self-hate, serving to prevent or delay even the first steps toward recovery. They stigmatize and disenfranchise.

Conversely, the right words can serve as a catalyst for personal transformation, personal healing, and recovery.

Words do matter, and we should give some thought to those that we choose to use.